Boys' Sailor Dresses and Kilts

Figure 1.--This little boy in a turn of the century image wears a sailor dress and not a middy blouse with a kilt-skirt.

Young boys for centuries were oufitted in dresses identical or virtually identical to their sisters. This practice continued throughout the 19th century. The styles of boys' dresses, however, began to become increasingly destinct from those for girls after the mid-19th century. Although some mothers still preffered the fancier styles for girls. There were, however, no clear distinction and if a mother saw a dress she liked, she could buy it for her son regardless of who it was designed for. Many dresses were sold as children's dresses without identifying gender. Department stores after mid-century would carry several differnt styles which were usually referred to as kilt suits. They usually were available in sizes 2 1/2 to 6 years old. These kilt suits were in addition to dresses designated specifically for boys. One of the most popular styles for these dresses, especially for boys, was the sailor style. Mothers who did not think their sons old enough for a proper sailor suit worn with kneepants, could chose sailor style dresses and kilt suit. Many mothers in the late 19th Century felt that sailor suits were especially appropriate for boys. This may have to some extent reflected the fact that boys liked the sailor styling more thna other stykles that mothers at the time chose for them. Many mothers who did not believe their sons were old enough for kneepants, still wanted to adopt the sailor style. Mothers who wanted to dress their younger boys in a sailor outfit had two choices, sailor dresses or a middy blouse worn with kilt/skirts:

Sailor Style

The genesis of the sailor suit is not fully understood, but Queen Victoria's decission to dress the Prince of Whales and subsequently his brothers in sailor suits first introduced the style to the wider public. The style did not begin, however, to be widely worn by boys until the 1870s. The first generation of royals only wore long pants sailor suits. It was not until the sailor suit began to reach mass popularity in the 1870s that dress or kilt/skirt versions appeared in large numbers for younger boys.

Figure 2.--This boy in the photograph probably taken in the 1870s wears a dress incorporating a "v" shaped sailor, but none of the more boyish features of the sailor kilt suits. Despite the dress he has a short hair cut, a good example of the variations in combinations of clothing and haircuts.


The sailor fashion fpr boys can be dated from the 1840s when the Prince of Wales first wore a sailor suit. We are not sure when sailor dresses first appeared. Nor are we entirely sure that sailor dresses were at first just for boys. They may not have had gender connotations. Here we are just not sure. We do not yet have any sailor dresses archived from the 1850s. There are some sailor dresses archived from the 1860s, but we have not yet made the kinks yet. We do note H.Douglas Burn, an English boy, photographed on the Isle of Wright about 1875.

Sailor Dress Types

Many mothers chose sailor dresses for their todlers as well as older boys. They was a wide variety of dresses with varioys types of sailor styling. These were one-piece dresses in most ways identical to the dresses worn by a boy's sister. In fact if he was a younger brother he might actually wear his sister's hand-me-down dresses. Some of these dresses looked much like middy blouses, but the designers took more liberties with the classic middy blouse than when producing actual middy blouses. Some of these dresses had the "V" collar andback flap, but others had more subtle sailor styling elements. Some of these dresses had lace or ruffles around the collar--giving a decidely non-sailor look. Some dresses were syled with the upper part in the look of a classic middy blouse with a "V" front collar and square back with three stripes. The dress would have a dicky between the "V", often with a star, anchor, or other nautical look. Beginning in the 1990s many more elaborate sailor frocks appeared. They were worn by both boys and girls. They were roughly based on the classic middy vlouse, but the sailor collar was trimed in lace and ruffles and often the square back of the collar was given a variety of different treatments. This style was still common in the 1900s, but declined in popularity during the 1910s.

Figure 3.--This 3-year old American boy was photographed in 1890. His name, John was inscribed on the back of the photograph. He still has curls, but not long hair like some boys his age. He wears a middyblouse with a skirt rather than a sailor dress. Notice the piping around the sailor collar and bow tied in an un-sailor fashion. Also notice his wide-brimmed straw sailor hat. His mother wanted it in the photograph, but did not want him to wear it as it would hide his curls.

Middy Blouses worn with Skirts/Kilts

One of the styles in which boys dresses or kilt suits were available was the popular sailor suit style. These had become particularly popular by the 1870s. They were often called kilt-suits, but they were not really plaid as the skirt, almost always white or blue, always matched the middy blouse. Proper plaid kilts were never worn with middy blouses. As a result, it was not quite accurate to refer to the skirts as kilts, but it was generally done as the term kilt was considered more appropriate for boys. Some early sailor kilt/skirt outfits in the 1870s-80s had clearly distinguishable characteristics. Some had very small "V" sailor collars. Some had a small ruffle around the collar. Others had middy blouses with button fronts. In some cases it is somewhat difficult to deferentiate between dresses and middy blouse kilt/skirt outfits. It should be stressed that these characteristics to not apply to all 1870s-80s suits, but middy blouses with these characteristics are almost always 1870s-80s suits.

Figure 4.--This boy wears a white sailor kilt or tunic. Notice how the collar falls over his shoulders. His brother who is only slightly older wears a kneepants suit with large Eton collar. One sister wears numerous hairbows. Click on the image for a view of the family.

Sailor Tunics

Tunic suits became very popular around the turn of the century. One of the most popular styles were the sailor-styled tunics. Russian tunics and Buster Brown suits were also popular. These tunics had henms and knee-length, but were not proper dresses. Boys always wore them with knee-length knickers.

Stylistic Elements

Dresses were done with varying degrees of sailor styling. Some of these outfits followed the classic lines of sailor suits. The major stlistic element modified is usually the "v" collar. Some suits have very large "v" collars, in some cases extending to the shouders. In other cases the "v" collar is very small. The bows associated with the "v" collars also vary. Other styles just incorporated some features of a sailor suit. Other designs were elaborate sailor suits deveating from the classic styles. One 1881 U.S. department store catalog, for example, offered two styles. The "Middy" was a two-piece kilt suit of plain or stripped suiting , blue, brown, or black check, shepards or novelty plaid. It had few features of the traditional sailor suit, but did have the double row of buttons generally assiociated with reffer-style sailor suits. The second style, the "Sea-beach" was also a two-piece kilt suit made of blue flannel with white or black decorative braid. Hand embroidered gold stars and anchors were added to the collar. The skirt part of the dress or the separate skirt/kilt of two pieces outfits also vary. One of the most common design element of sailor dresses were horizontal stripes near the hem.

Figure 5.--This boy in a sailor dress wears ringlet curls. Notice the large size of the "v" collar amd the ruffles addes around his neck. Also notice the horizontal stripes, a popular stylistic element, on the skirt.

Hair Styles

Boys outfitted in sailor-style dresses or kilts had a variety of hair styles. The styles varied over time and from country to country. American boys wearing these skirted sailor suits were more likely to be kept in curls than those outfitted in knee pants sailor suits. This was not always the case, however, as shown by the boy in figure 1 who while still in a sailor-style dress has a short, boyish hair cut. It was sinply up to the disgression of the mother, and nothing much was thought of the matter. Mother rather much had free reign before her son began school, longer if he was schooled at home. British boys would usually have their hair cut by the age of 8 years as by the 1880s this was becoming the accepted age to begin preparatory boarding schools. This age was less fixed in America and France where mothers were less likekly to send such young boys to boarding school. While there are examples of boys knee pants sailor suits sometimes still in curls, it was not the common practice. Long hair and curls for boys became increasingly popular for boys in the 1880s, in part because of the Fautleroy caze. Many boys wearing sailor dresses and even sailor suits in the late 19th and early 20th Century were kept in long curls. It appears, however, that based on the images I have seen that boys in sailor dresses and suits were somewhat less likely to have curls than boys wearing other popular outfits, especially sailor suits. I'd be interested in any insights on this observation by HBC visitors.

Figure 6.--This boy in 1888 appears to be wearing a middy blouse and skirt/kilt. The middy blouse has a rather small sailor collar. Note the front buttons. There looks to be a little ruffled work around his neck. He has a short hair cut and what looks to be rounded peaked cap--rather unusual head gear for a boy who had not yetbbeen breeched.

Caps and Hats

Boys in sailor dresses and kilts commnly wore wide-brimmed sailor hats. Boys in proper sailor suits wore such hats, but they also often wore more informal sailor caps. Such caps were less common for the boys still wearing skirted sailor outfits. There were, however, no hard set rules on head gear and there was considerable variation over time and among countries. Available inmages of boys in skirted saiolor garments were mostly taken in the late 19th or very early 20th centuries. As a result they are almost all studio portraits. The child almost never is shown wearing a hat or cap, as it was indoors and the mother preferred for the boys hair style to show. Interestingly, adoring mothers sometimes wanted the boy's hat to be included in the photograph and some can be seen on tables or laying on the floor.

Girls Sailor Dresses

We note elements of sailor styling affecting girls dresses in the 1850s. This may have occurred earlier, but we have only limited information on the styling of girls' dresses. Sailor styling was an important influence by the 1860s, not only in England, but other countries as well. We do not notice girls wearing traditionally styled middy blouses and skirts until the mid-1880s and does not appear to have become comnmon until the 1890s. We still have only a limited number of early images, but this is our initial assessment. The sailor suit dveloped as a style first in England. Presimably sailor dresses and middy blouses and skirts may have lagged somewhat in other countries. Informatipn on the ise of eailor stylong in gorls dresses and other sailor outfits is useful in helping to better understand the gender connotations. This is important information in helping to assess the gender of unidentified imaages.

Country Trends

Sailor styling for dresses was common in many countries. A good example of a sailor dress is one worn by a Canadian boy, J. Skioch in 1887.

Personal Experiences

The 1890s: French boy


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Created: January 3, 1999
Last updated: 6:18 AM 10/9/2009