Sailor Suits: American Styles


Figure 1.--This photograph is dated 1886, but I am not sure how acurately. It looks more like the 1870s to me. Sailor suits became in the 1870s an increasingly important boys' fashion and were well established by the 1880s. Kneepants were also becoming widely worn by boys, but were not yet as commion in the ealy 1870s as they were to be in the 1880s and 1890s. Also notice the boy's long, but not shoulder length hair. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

The sailor suit is one of the most suceesful boys styles of all time. It was one of those rare coincidences of an outfit which both boys amd mothers liked. The sailor suit was one of the most popular styles for boys in the late-19th century. The style was conceived in England, but proved popular in America and coincided with the emergence iof America on the world scene as it was building a powerful navy. We also note girls wearing sailor styles. Paradoxically, the sailor suit continued popular in the anti-war environment of the post-World War I era and mothers continued willingness to dress small boys in the sailor suit. As sailor styles became increasingly popular with girls, fewer boys wanted to wear them.

Background

Sailor suits were introduced as boys' wear by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 1840s when the Prince of Wales was outfitted in a white enlistedman's uniform. The first generation did not commonly wear sailor suits, but it became almost a uniform for British royals in the second generation. The second generation of princes aooeared in sailor suits after they were breeched. The style eventually spread to the Continent. The style gained momentum when Queen Victoria's daughters and grandaughters mairred into most of the important royal families in Europe. The style also spread to the new American Republic as well as France which became a republic in 1848, albeit briefly. British naval uniforms have strongly influenced naval uniforms around the world. Thus the most popular styles were based on those of the Brirtish Royal Navy. The sailor suits for boys soon began taking on the styles of the various national navies.

Chronology

HBC has realtively little information about sailor suits in America during the mid-19th century. Queen Victory helped establish the sailor suit as a style for boys in the 1840s. It was then that the Queen began dressing the young princes in the uniforms of an enlisted British sailor. We are not yet sure how rapidly it spread to America. We do know that it had become an enormously popular style by the late 20th century. The popularity of the sailor suit, however, began to decline in the 1920s as girls increasingly bgan wearing sailor styles. Fewer and fewer boys wanted to wear them by the 1930s, althoug they were still worn by younger boys. The sailor suit for boys was not an instant success in America. I do not know of American boys wearing sailor suits before the 1840s and Queen Victoria began dressing the Prince of Wales in sailor suits. HBC has done considerable research on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their family. We still do not know just who came up with the idea of the sailor suit, but we have collected a great deal of information on the clothes worn by the princes and princesses and their family life. The sailor suit as a boy's fashion seem to have begun to catch on in America during the 1870s. But it was not until the 1880s that the sailor suit emerged as a principal boys' fashion. I am not sure just why the sailor suit became so popular in the 1880s, but several factors appear to have been importtant. The sailor suits were available in both blue and white. The blue suits were serge and other heavy wool fabrics for cool weather. The white suits were linen and other light fabrics for warm weather. Various combinations were sometimes worn, but by the 1890s it was generally white middy blouses with blue pants. American boys continued to wear sailor suits during the Edwardian period, following the turn of the century. The sailor suit was probably the most popular style for boys in the 1900s and only slightly less so in the 1910s. Younger boys might wear sailor styled tunics while older boys wore middy blouses with matching pants. Gradually knee pants began to be replaced with knickers and to a lesser extent shortpants. Sailor suits were still commonly worn by boys in the early 1920s. Kneepants were still common, but by the mid-1920s were rarely seen. Boys pants styles shifted to knickers. Some boys still wore their sailor suits with long stockings in 1920, but by the middle of the decade boys were mostly wearing kneesocks. >American boys after World War II no longer commnly wore sailor suits, but the st the style has never completely disappeared. There were some play suits for little boys with sailor collars during the 1940s, but these became increasingy rare by the 1950s. Some dressy sailor suits outfits for little boys are also worn. They are also sometimes used as attire for boys at formal weddings.

Garments

American boys ave worn a variety of garments with sailor styling. Most of the garnments worn in Britain were also worn in America. The classic middy blouse was the standard shirt-like garmet, alough reefer javkets were also common. A range of pants incliding bell bottoms, kneepants, knickers, and short pants were also worn. The types of pants varied over time. Keepants were popular in the late 19th-century. Short panrs became more common in the 1920s, but sailor suits also began to be worn by increasingly younger boys. There were also other items such as hats and caps as wll as coats, scarves, dickies, and other items.

Ages

Sailor suits were very popular in America as in Europe. They were, however, more commonly worn by younger boys in America. HBC has not yet fully assessed te ages from available catalogs. but believes that sailor suits in America were rearely made for boys older than 11 or perhaps 12 years of age. we have noted older boys in Europe wearing them. This subject should be relatively easy to research because catalogs like Wards and Sears as well as other companies normally indicated ages. We are working on a catalog section for HBC and will use this to develop this section. Our initial impression is that sailor suits were most common for children about 4-10 years of age. Sailor suits were one of the most popular styles for boys this age. This of course varied somewhat over time.

Gender

The sailor suit was intially a boys style. It was created in Englnd and spread to America. As in England, it was initially a boys' style in America as well. Eventually girls began wearing sailor outfits as well. We see both dresses with sailor styling and sailor suits. The dresses were styled variously. Some had only a hint of sailor styling. Others had more obvioys sailor styling and we note some traditionally styled drresses. The sailot suits could be the same as the ones worn by boys, only with skirts substituted for pants. We are not yet sure about the chronology here, but note girls wearing sailor suits (middy blouses and skirts) by the 1890s. We also note girls wearing middy blouses with bloomers for gym in high schools. Sailor outfits, both sailor-styled dresses and sailor suits were very popular for girls schoolwear in the first half of the 20th century. By thi time only younger boys wore sailor schools. We see teenage girls commobly wearing sailor-styled outfits to school.

Coordinated Outfits

The sailor suit was one of the outfits that some parents used to dress all the children in a family orvat least the younger ones identically or to coordinate their outfits. It does not appear to have vbeen quite as common as in Germany, primarily because the sailor suit was not as common as in Germany. This was especially true in the 20th century. American teenage boys rarely wore sailor suits in America while many younger teens did wear sailor suits in Germany. The sailor suit was a flexible garment. Why teen age boys did not wear sailor suits in America, girls did and this it was a style that could be used for briothers and sisters. This changed after the turn-of- the 20th century. The sailor began to declinr in popularity for boys as it increased in popularity for girls. This trend became even more pronounced after world war I when we only see younger primary boys wearing sailor suits. This limited the utility of the stle for dressing the whole family in similar outfits. Smaller family sizes were another factor.

Styling

We are all familiar with the sailor suit that boys began wearing in the mid-19th century. The styles were inspired by naval uniform styles. There were, however, a wide variety of sailor suits styles, especially in the 1860s and 70s. Some were rather elaborate, varying substantially from actual naval uniforms. Only gradually did the traditional sailor suit with three stripes become an established standard. Less obvious is the ways to which sailor styling has been adopted in other garments. Many boys wore jackets or blouses with a hint of sailor styling. Many boys wore Fauntleroy and ither outfits with sailor hats. Other boys wore sailior suits or outfirs woth sailor styling without sailor caps or hats. The various permutations were especially striking in the 19th century. Especially difficult for mothers to resist during the 1980s and 90s was to add an emormous bow, even with outfits with sailor styling.

Color

The most popular colors for sailor suits was of course blue, commonly navy blue, and white. We know from store catalogs that they were done in other colors. We are not real sure about 19th century sailor suits because of the black and white pgotographt of the day. We have some catalog information, espdecially from the late 19th century. We have found a few colorized portraits that provide additionl clues on sailor suit colors. Colorized portraits are not definitive, but they are strong indications. We even see pink suits. We see stores offering quite a range of suits in many different styles and colors. This was also the case in the early 20th century. After World War I sailor suits and colors become more stanfardized, especially by the 1930s. And we begin to get more colored images. We are not sure how America compared with other countries as regards to color.

Patterns

Most sailor suits were done in flat material, usually blue or white. Which of course mirrors actual sailor suits round the world. And the whole idea was an outfit based on naval uniforms. The photographic record shows that this was the case of the vast majority of sailor suits. The black and white photography of the day does not show color, although it genberally dors accurately dpict white. Patterns are a different matter. We can clearly see when fabric with patterns are used. And while patterns are not common, we have found examples. This is just one more example of mothers being mothers. Some mothers just cold not prevent themselves from just rolling with the standard sailor outfit and adding their own fashion touches. This may be nome sewing. Home sewers could choose what ever fabric they wanted. We have not see patterned sailor suits being advertized in mail order caralogs meaning mass produced garments.

Popularity

One interesting question is why the sailor suit was so popular. Of course, the sailor suit was not only popular in America, but it was popular throughout Europe, the British Empire, and moddle class families in Latin America. It is understandable why the sailor suit was very popular in Britain. Victoria dressed the princes in sailor suits (1840s). This and the legendary status of the Royal Navy explains why the sailor suit became so popular in Britain. Why it becaame so popular in America is a more difficult subject. The American Navy had an ilustrious history, but nothing like the RoyaL Navy. The U.S. Navy played an important role in the Civil war (1861-65), but it was the army heros that dominated the popular imagination. We suspect that a more important factor was the importance of European fashions. The fact that British and other European boys were wearing sailor suits almost certainly had a major impact. We think that many bpys liked wearing sailor suits, but children in the 1890s still did mot have a major say in what they wore, especially younger children. We think the sight of boys wearing sailor suits rather cauhht the public imaginbation. Ut was a style that parents could agree about. Mothers seem i have thought the boys looked cute. Fathers probably preferred them to alternatives like the Fauntleroy suit. We suspect tht other factors were involved and would be interested in other thoughts readers may have, The military dimensions seem a minor influence. Although current events seem to have been factors for short periods. The Spanish American War resulted in a huge interest in the Navy as did World War II.

Hair Styles

The sailor suit was one of the most popular styles for American boys as ell as boys inn many other countries. It was worn by boys for about a century. As a result over that time it was worn along with virtually every conceivanle hair style with the exception of some of the more outlandish syles of the late-20th century. We note bamgs, bowl cuts, cropped hair, short and long )but more commonly short) styles, various parts and lengths, and many other styles. And this included ringlet curls during the Fauntleroy craze of the late-19th and early-20th century. In fact more boys may have worn ringlets with sailor suits than Fauntleroy suits. This speaks more to thev popularity of the sailorv suit than any connectuiin between the two. Much of this depended on the fashionable hair stykles during the various decades that the sailor suit was commonly worn,

Literary References

"I will take it, whatever it is. When do you leave?" "Get your children immediately, for we leave as soon as possible, any moment." How her heart must have jumped for joy when we sailed away from the fever-stricken city into the pure air of the Gulf and knew we were headed toward home. The fever raged in full force that summer and many, especially negroes, died. As we never heard from Aunt Sally, we felt sure she was one of the victims. This part of our journey was very different from our previous experiences. We were no longer honored and feasted. We were only one group among many forlorn refugees. We were shabby and neglected. Part of the time we were seasick, and always uncomfortable in our cramped quarters. The boys looked neat in their sailor suits, but the rest of us were, to say the least, not dressed in the latest fashion. The first day my brother Tom was wandering alone about the saloon, when an officer ordered him to go forward, saying, "No sailors were allowed aft." It took a good deal of explanation before he was satisfied that the boy was a passenger, for the suit was so exactly right that he could hardly be convinced that it belonged to a landsman. That was before it was the fashion for boys to wear sailor suits. The rest of my story is not very thrilling. We arrived at our home in Rhode Island after an uneventful trip to New York, and were welcomed by my father and brother, who had passed a long and lonely winter. The old farm seemed a haven of rest and plenty after our hard experience in Apalachicola. [Reminiscences of the Civil War by Cora Mitchel, pp. 41-42.]

Light came and went and came again, the booming strokes of three o'clock beat out across the town in thronging bronze from the courthouse bell, light winds of April blew the fountain out in rainbow sheets, until the plume returned and pulsed, as Grover turned into the Square. He was a child, dark-eyed and grave, birthmarked upon his neck--a berry of warm brown--and with a gentle face, too quiet and too listening for his years. The scuffed boy's shoes, the thick-ribbed stockings gartered at the knees, the short knee pants cut straight with three small useless buttons at the side, tbe sailor blouse, the old cap battered out of shape, perched sideways up on top of the raven head, the old soiled canvas bag slung from the shoulder, empty now, but waiting for the crisp sheets of the afternoon--these friendly, shabby garments, shaped by Grover, uttered him. He turned and passed along the north side of the Square and in that moment saw the union of Forever and of Now. [The Lost Boy (1937) by Thomas Wolfe]

The three girl friends were seated on the rocks, enjoying the evening scene and the air which was fresh but not too chilly. Many a time and oft were they wont to come there to that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine, Cissy Caffrey and Edy Boardman with the baby in the pushcar and Tommy and Jacky Caffrey, two little curlyheaded boys, dressed in sailor suits with caps to match and the name H. M. S. Belleisle printed on both. For Tommy and Jacky Caffrey were twins, scarce four years old and very noisy and spoiled twins sometimes but for all that darling little fellows with bright merry faces and endearing ways about them. They were dabbling in the sand with their spades and buckets, building castles as children do, or playing with their big coloured ball, happy as the day was long. And Edy Boardman was rocking the chubby baby to and fro in the pushcar while that young gentleman fairly chuckled with delight. He was but eleven months and nine days old and, though still a tiny toddler, was just beginning to lisp his first babyish words. Cissy Caffrey bent over to him to tease his fat little plucks and the dainty dimple in his chin. [Ulysses/Nausicca Ch. 13 by James Joyce]

Miscelaneous

In the 50th aniversery book which came out for Donald Duck's birthday in 1984, there is a quote from Walt Disney that they put donald in a sailor suit because sailor suits "were quite typical for young boys to wear in the thirties" and that they had wanted Donald to seem as immature as possible since he and Peter Pig were prepresenting the "just desserts" aspect of 'The Wise Little Hen'.

Fashion Articles

Fashion article: 1920s

Individual Outfits

We have archived quite a few boys and girls on HBC wearing sailor suits over the years. The sailor suit was popular in both Europe and America. So we have quite a number of images from America and other countries. Sailor suits were so popular that there are countless images to choose from. Unfortunately the hedadwear is not always include in the photograph. We plan to link some of those pages here to see how sailir syyles and conventions varied over time. This will take some time to do. In some cases we know who the individuals were and something asbout the family. In other cases the children are unidentified and all we have is the image to go on.







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Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: 5:16 PM 8/23/2017