German Sailor Suits: Die Matrosenkleidung


Figure 1.--This German boys wears a light-colored velvet sailor suit in a photograph probably taken in the 1890s. It looks similar to a suit that might be worn by a French or American boy at the time.

Sailor suits are often associated with England, but it is in Germny that we find large numbers of photogrphs picturing boys wearing sailor suits. Sailor suits were as popular in Germany as in virtually any European country--much more so than in England. The saolor suit seems espeially popular in Germany during the early-20th century. We are not entirely sure why that was. The sailor suit originated in England and arivalry developed between Rngland the primary naval power and Germany the primary land power. But it is the sailor suit based on the English naval uniform that became widely popular in Germany. The sailor suit seems toi have at least in part reflected Germany's infatuation with building a navy, a decission which led Germany and Europe down the path to World War I. We note boys of vituall all ges wearing them. Quite old boys would wear sailor suits in Germany, perhaps older boys than elsewhere in Europe.

Background

The origins of the sailor suit are not with certainty. We have seen references to boys wearing sailor trousers in England during the first quarter of the 19th century. Apparently someone had the inspiration that boys should wear sailors' trousers. It is known with certainty that the style was popularized when Queen Victoria began to dress the young princes in sailor suits during the 1840s. The fashion spread to the continent, including Germany. This was no doubt helped by the royal family which included the British Crown princess Victoria who became the Prussian crown princess when she married Crown Prince Frederich. The sailor suit by the 1880s was one of the most popular styles for boys. We are not sure why the sailor suit became so popular in Germany. The British conndction may have neen a factor. But Prussia/Germany had no naval tradition which was part of the reason the sailor became so popular in Britain. The big power competition at the turn of the 20th century centered on colonies and the related naval competition. The sailor suit became even more popular in Germany than it had been in Britain. This continued through the 1920s. Much older boys wore sailor suits in Germany than in Britain or America, especially after World War I (1918), but declined somewhat in the 1930s and was only worn by younger boys after World War II (1945).

Terminology

We note some period styles for which thre is no rel German words such as kilts and Fauntleroy suits. This is not the case for sailor suits. These suits were widely worn by German boys and there were German terms for the various sailor suit items. The German term for sailor suit is "Die Matrosenkleidung". To translate Sailor suits as Seemannskleidung is correct, but I think Seemannsanzug or Matrosenanzug are more common. Other related terms include: sailor caps and hats ( Matrosenmütze ), cap tally (Mützenband), cap streamers (???), middy blouse ( Oberfähnrich / Matrosenbluse ), dicky (Latz), scarfe (Halstuch), tin whitle ( Blechpfeife ), reefer jacket ( Seemansjacke ), sailor trousers ( Seemannshosen ), bellbottom trousers (???). Hopefully our German readers will assist with the needed translations.

Chronology

The sailor suit was as popular, if not more popular, in Germany than any weher in Germany. The suits appeared later in Germany than some other countries. Prussia and the other Grman states had no navy of any significance. Once the German Kaiser and Austrian Emperor started building a navy in the late 1880s, however, their popularity for boys in both Germany and Austria took off. The fact that the wife of the crown prince Frederich was the eldest dauther of England's Queen Victoria who had first dressed the princes in the uniform of enlisted sailors. Virtually every German boy in the late 19th and early 20th century wore a sailor suit. They were commonly worn to school by German boys. At this tine, however. most of our information on German sailor suits is limited to the 20th century.

Types

German boys, like boys in other European countries, wore different types of sailor suits as well as differet coats and headwear. The middy blouse and suit was the most popular of all the sailor suits. The basic pattern of German sailor suits tended to follow traditional patterns, but there was a wide range of colors and stripes especially in the early 20th century before World War I. These suits were not based on uniforms, unlike sailor suits worn in most other periods. German boys did not commonly wear some of the fancier styles that were worn by French or even American boys. Most of the suits before World War I were knee pants sailor suits before World War I, but short pants suits became more common after the War. We also note button-on suits.

Skirted Styles

In addition to the regular sailor garments, there were also sailor outfits for boys not yet breeched. This included both sailor dresses and sailor kilt/skirt outfits. These wore for boys who mothers judged not yet old enough to war kneepants. We do not note a lot of sailor dresses. We believe that when they were most common that photograph was less common, although the prncipal reason was that the sailor outfit of middy blouse and kilt/skirt was more common, especially by the 1890swhen photography had become commonplace, at least studio photography. This combination also had a very practical advantage. A boy could continue wearing the middy blouse after he was breeched, only with knee pants.

Garments

German sailor suits were composed as the same standard garments as worn by boys in other European countries and America. The headwear, coats, jackets, middy blouses, different and different kinds of pants are similar to other garments worn in other countries. The German sailor-styled garments appear rather similar to comparable garments worn by boys in other European countries. One of the few destintive garments is one of the sailor cap styles worn, but it was more commonly worn with boys' uniforms than individual boys' suits.


Figure 2.-- Here we see German boys wearing light-weight summer sailor suits. We notice both a white blouse ad a striped suit. It looks like the 1920s to us, but the dealer thought it was the 1930s.

Seasonality

The sailor suit was such a popular style that suits were made for both winter and summer wear. The difference was the type and weight of the fabric utilized. Winter suits were commonly heavy fabrics like wool serge. Summer suits were leight-weight cotton fabrics. A convention developethat the summer suits were darl colors, often navy blue. The summer suits were often white or at least white blouses. Striped fabrics were also popular. They were often blue and white stripe, bu other colors were also used. We are not sure about sailor suit seasonality in the 19th century, but it was a well established practice by the 20th century.

Hair Styles

We note German boys wearing sailor suits with many different hair styles. Here we notice chronological differences. Age was another factor affecting hair styles. Before World War I cropped haor seems to have been the most common style worn with sailor suits, pribably because the hair style was so popular. After World war I bangs became increasingly popular. We notice various other styles using parts, mostly relatively short hair styles. We notice a few boys wearig sailor suits with curls, but not nearly as mny as in America.

Styles

We have noted sailor suits done in a wide range of different styles. There were an especially wide range of styles in the 19th century. This is the sane pattern noted in other countries. Here a special factor concerning Germany could have been that the country did not begin building a substantial navy until the 1890s. The basic standard was the unifom of the Germany navy--heavily influenced by the British naval uniform. Some sailor suits from the beginning were styled traditionally lile the british or German naval uniforms. There were also some sailor suits which were styled fashionally with only the basic look of a sailor suit--namely the V-front and back flap. The traditional styles were done in black and white with the three stripes based on Nelson's three great victories.

Colors and Patterns

German boys commonly wore blue or white sailor suits, usually on a seasonal basis. There were other colors, but the black-and-white photography of the day makes this very difficult to assess. And unlike the United States, we do not have much catalog information from Germany for color information. Barious blue shades were by far the most important. After the turn of the century mixing colors, usually a white middy blouse with blue pants. The blues ranged from light blue for summer to dark blue or black for winter. Variously colored suits may have been used for play, but proper sailor suits were almost always blue or white. The suits were usually solid colors, but some mostly summer suits were stripped. These stried suits appear to have been especially popular in Germay. The suits were most commonly white with blue stripes, but there were other combinations as well.

Actual Suits

Some actual sailor suits exist. They are helpful in assessing the color, construction, and materials of German sailor suits. These actual suits provide important details on the garments that can not be obtained from photographic images, important though they are.


Figure 3.-- We have noted German boys from about 2-15 years of age wearing sailor suits. The age conventions varied over time. They were ar first only for little boys and then after the heyday of the syle we again see only little boys wearing them.

Age

The age of boys wearing sailor suits varied over time. We are uncertain about 19th century trends as we have few images. We note Prince Wilhelm in the 1860s wearing sailor suits as a younger boy. We also note primary boys wearing sailor suits to school in the 1890s. By the early 20th century and probablu earlier sailor suits appeared to bo have been worn by older boys as well. We note younger teenagers wearing them through the 1920s. This became less common in the 1930s, especially by the mid-1930s as the NAZIs discouraged this, except for the Marine Hitlet Youth uniform of course. After the mid-1930s only quite young boys commonly wore sailor suits in Germany.

Schoolwear

The sailor suit during the late 19th and early 20th century was widely worn to school by boys in many European countries. It was especially common in France and Germany. Interestingly it was least common in England, the country where boys first wore sailor suits and which had the most poweful navy. It was also worn in America, but perhaps because of the British connection not as commonly as in Europe. A few schools, mostly military schools had sailor suit uniforms, but for the most part boys simply wore it because it was a common boys' clothing style. Sailor suits becan to commonly appear in the schools during the 1970s and were commonly worn through the 1920. The began to decline in popularity during the 1930s, but trends varied from country to country.

Conventions

The sailor suit was a very versital garment. It could be an informal play garment or a boy's best suit. Many younger boys did not have a dress suit and instead wear sailor suits. Other boys played in them. They were also widely worn to school. They could also be formal wear to occasions like weddings. Few garments could be worn for such widely different circumstances. The styling could be quite similar for these different occassions. The material was also similar, although this could vary by season.

Coordinated Styles

I t was very common for German parent to dress their children in identical or coordinated styles. This was especially true for the boys. This was a popular approach during the late-19th century and first half the 20th century. Perhaps the most popular style used to dress the children alike was the sailor suit. One of the advantages of the sailor suit was that it was a style that was suitable for both boys and girls.

Gender

We note both German boys and girls wearing sailor suits. Both boys and girls might wear the same middy blouses, but of course the boys wore pants and the girls skirts. There were also saolor dresses. Some mothers thus outfitted their sons and daughters in identical outfits. In other instances just the boys or girls were dressed in identical outfits. The middy blouses worn by boys and girls could be identical, primarily because the both used traditional styling. The styling of the sailor dresses was much more varied, especially in the 19th century. After the turn of the 20th century, especially after World war I, the styling of sailor dresses became more standardized--adopting the traditional styling of many middy blouses.

Companies

HBC has only limited informatin as to the German companies producing sailor suits. One of the most important was Bleyle. Wilhelm Bleyle had a factory producing mostly knitwear in Stuttgart, Germany. We do not know when the form was founded. Most German boys ages 8-12 for several generations owned a Bleyle sailor suit. Bleyle products were very popular in Holland, so I assume that the sailor suits Dutch boys wore came from Bleyle in Germany. This is one of many indicators of fashion connections between the Dutch and Germans. We know nothing about the company at this time, except that they provide high quality clothing at somewhat expensive prices. They are still operating, but the only company website we could find was still "under construction". We note that U.S. retailers in 2002 are marketing Bleyle women's clothes.

Political Connotations

Were there political connotations to the popularity of the sailor suit. We believe that there were, although admittely this is a diificult proposition to make with any certainty. We note that Kaiser Wilhelm grew up wearing sailor suits and seeing his cousins wearing sailor suits. We know that he was impressed with fleet reviews as a child when he visited England with his mother. This must have affected his thinking and world outlook. To what cextent it affected his thinking can not be proved with any certainty, but it must have been a factor. The new Imperial Navy, the Kriegsmarina was an institution of the new united Germany. With Wilhelm II's decession to build a High Seas Fleet, Germany substantially increased the size and importance of the Kriegsmarina. In the early 20th century, not country with aspirations of national grandueur was without a navy with big-gun battleships (dreadnouhts). Even virtually land-locked countries like Russia and Austria-Hungary built them. Not country had greater national aspirations and feelings of being agrieved than Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany. And the new navy felt to many German's a necessary step for true great power status. As such, the sailor suit was viewed as a sign of German Nationality and pride. The politicial connotations of the boys' sailor suit may have been a part of the social background that prepared the ground work for the calamity of World War I. Fashion is generally viewed by HBC as a reflection of larger historical an societal trends. We remained convinced that this is essentially the case. It is interestng however, to reflect on the impact of the boys' sailor suit in the years leaing up to World War I.

Decline in Popularity

A German source ascribes the decline in popularity of the sailor suit to two factors: "Die Novemberrevolution von 1918/1919 brachte den Matrosenanzug beim deutschen Bürgertum in Misskredit. Die Nationalosozialisten beurteilten diese Kinderbekleidung als bürgerlich-reaktionär. Damit verschwand der Matrosenanzug in den 30-er Jahren des 20. Jahrhunderts immer mehr aus dem Stadtbild." [Museum Kindheit und Jugend] The English translation would read something like, "The November revolution of 1918/1919 brought the sailor suit worn by middle class Germans boys into discredit. The National Socialists (NAZIs) judged this form of child's clothing as middle-class reactionary. Thus the sailor suit disappeared in the 1930's of the 20th from the townscape." The Germany Navy mutinied at the closing months of World War I and sailors were active in the 1919 disorderes that followed the War. HBC is not sure that this, however, was a major reason for declining popularity of sailor suits in Germany. Sailor suits were infact very popular in Germany during the 1920s, much more popukar than in America and England. In fact there was a general decline in the poopularity of the sailor suit in the 1920s that had no relation to political trends. We suspect that these trends were at play in Germany as well. We have noted a sharp decline in the popukarity of sailor suits after the NAZIs seized control in 1933. We suspected that the NAZIs disapproved of sailor suits, although we have no actual evidence to confirm it in the form of public statements by NAZI officials or articles in German publications. We hadattributed the NAZI attitude to the thugish constinuency of NAZI groups like the SA Stormtroopers who probably saw the sailor suit as suitable only for very little boys and not sufficently manly for a German boy. The German source also suggests that there were social class factors involved.

Difficult Images

HBC believes that two of the photographs loaded on the difficult country page are probably German boys wearing sailor suits. We have no information on the nationality of many of these images, but believe that they are probably German images. Other images here, we are just not sure what to make of. Hopefully our German readers will have some insights.

Individuals

There are numerous images of German children wearing sailor suits archived on HBC. The sailor suit was enormously popular in Germany and the photographic record reflects this. We plan to link a number of them here, but this will take some time. In some images we know something about the children in the images. More commonly all we have are unidentified image. In some cases the photograph provides us some clues about the children or at least some interesting details about sailor suits. We also archive here any personal accounts we can find about sailor suits.

Sources

"Die Matrosenkleidung," Museum Kindheit und Jugend. This on-line German museum has a wonderful site on German childhood and youth. The sailor suit article is no longer available, but there is a great deal of intersting information about German childhood here.







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Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: 5:36 PM 7/15/2010