*** sailor suit tunics / blouse suits

Sailor Suit Tunics/Blouse Suits

sailorb tunic suits
Figure 1.--One of the most popular styles of tunic suits at the turn of the century were sailor tunics. Note the curls and hair bows.

Tunics or blouse suits worn with bloomer-style knickers were one of the most popular styles for turn of the century boys, both in Europe and America. One of the most popular style of tunics were sailor tunics. This was an extremely common style at the turn of the century. Reflecting chaning trends, boys who oncev might still have not yet been breeched and wearing dresses were now being dressed in the new tunic suits--especially the sailor tunics. Boys almost always wore their tunics, even sailor tunics with belts which were purely stylistic adornments.


Tunics were one of the more enduring 19th century styles for boys. As the 19th Century progressed, another garment was added to the small boy's wardrobe--a smock-like tunic. The tunic suit was a form of jacket, close-fitting to the waist, with a gathered or pleated skirt below the waist. It was often the first boyish garment purchased for a boy after he was breeched and allowed to stop wearing dresses. While tunics declined at mid-century, by the late 19th Century tunics had again become a popular style for younger boys. The were available in many different styles. One of the most important was the sailor style.


One of the most popular style of tunics were those made in the sailor style. Sailor suits were introduced to the general public as a fashion for boys when Queen Victoria in the 1840s began dressing the princes in them. The style was not an immediate success, but had become widely accepted in the 1870s. When tunics became increasingly popular again in the 1890s, sailor-styled tunics were some of the most popular styles. They were commonly worn through the 1910s.

sailor tunic
Figure 2.--Some of the earliest Christmas cards show happy children in their best party clothes. This turn of the century American card shows a boy in a blue sailor tunic. Notice the contrasting collar and belt.


The sailor tunic came in a wide variety of styles. Some were very plain with virtually no styling except for the required belt. Others were quite elaborate styles with lace and ruffles. These may appear to have been made for girls, but in fact they were boys' formal garments. A girls' formal garment would have been more likely to have been a party frock. Some sailor tunics had the characteristic front "v" cut sailor collar while others had a square front collar. All had characteristic back flaps. Some of the black flaps were plain like a middy blouse, other fancy tunic suits may have lace trimmed or even large lace back flaps.

Features and Accessories

They differed from classic sailor suits in that the tunic was much longer than a middy blouse and almost always had a prominent belt. The belt was often in the same material and color as the tunic, but could also also be made of a contrasting color and material. Most of the sailor tunics had a traditional bow. In many cases these were of the same color as the tunic. This differs from regular sailor suits which usually had black bows or to a lesser extent white bows. The smock-like tunic was often quite long. It often extended to just above the hem of the knickers. I believe that this was to show that the boy was wearing a tunic and not a smock or dress. Boys, especially those still wearing curls, would have looked much like girls wearing dresses if their knickers did not show.

white lacy tunic suit
Figure 3.--This boy wears a rather elaborate white sailor tunic, Note the extensive lace work on his sailor collar. Note the little chain the boy is wearing.


I am not yet positive about this, but I believe that sailor tunics were primrily a boys' style. I can't say at this time that girls did not wear them. In fact I believe that girls did some times wear them, althought this tpic needs to be pursued in greater detail. Notably, however, most family photographs show the boys in tunic suits and the girls wearing dresses. I believe that girls may have worn them rather as olay suits and put on dresses for more formal occasions. In particular I do not think that girls would have worn the knickers that went with these suits like the boys for dress occasiins. Thus a child, even in ringlet curls, wearing sailor tunics and knickers is probably a boy.


Like other tunics, sailor tunics were worn with blouse like knickers. Although knee pants were still worn by boys, the sailor tunics were worn with bloomer-like knicker pants. I have little information about these knickers. I have never noted these tunics worn with kneepants or knickers with buckle fasteners. I do not know if they had pockets or belt loops. They all seemed to have elastic leg closings.


Blue and/or white sailor tunics appear to have been the most common. Some appear to have had some red detailing. I believe that sailor tunics were available in a wider range of colors than most sailor suits, but I need more information on this. Some sailor tunics. Here as much of our information comes from available portraits which were done in black and white. Thus they do not provide us color information. Some of these tunics appear to have been done in grey. We believe that there were many other colors, but wjite suits for some wear seem bery common. Another tunic style, Buster Brown suits were commonly made in red. The white and lighter-colored tunics were mostly worn in the summer. The darker-colored suits were often made of serge or other wool fabric for winter wear. Most sailor suits were solid colors with contrasting detailing. Some tunics were available in stripes. The striped suits were a summer fashion.

sailor tunic
Figure 4.--This is a good example of a boy's sailor tunic. Note how the smock-like tunic also covers the boy's bloomer-style knickers. I'm not sure what color this tunic was. The photograph was probably taken in the late 1890s or early 1900s.


Boys in the late 19th century commonly wore large bows and collars. At the turn of the century, boys did not wear the same large bows with their sailor tunic suits. Some boys wore no collars. Other boys wore collars. They were highly varied, but not nearly as large as the bows worn with Fauntleroy and other suits.


Sailor tunics were worn by younger boys. Many were dressed in tunics as a more boyish style after breeching. Sailor tunics were commonly worn by boys from about 2-3 to 7 or 8 years of age. Some images, however, suggest that boys as old as 10 might have worn them.


Sailor tunics varied greatly in the detailing employed. Some were solid-colored tunics with only the sailor collar and back flap. Some solid-colored tunics had contrasting-colored collars. Most had stripes on the collar, usually three stripes. Some sailor tunics were extremely fancy with ruffles or even lace on the collar. Many had dickies with embroidered nautical themes like anchors. Some also had emblems of rank on the sleeves.


Sailor tunics were generally worn with long stockings. They were generally dark colored stockings, even with light-colored tunics. White tunics were sometimes worn with white stockings. I believe the white tunics were considered dressier than the dark-colored ones. After the turn of the century boys during the summer, especially in the South might go barefoot.

Figure 5.--This boys wears a dark blue winter sailor tunic with ringlet curls. He looks to be about 4 years of age. Note the ear showing through the curls. Click on the image for a close up of the boy's hair style.


Sailor yunics were made in a variety of materials. This depended somewhat on rhe season. There were tunics for both warm and cold seather, thus various light and heavy materials were used. Heavy fabrics included serge and cheviot. Summer fabrics included linnen for expensive dressy tunics or galeta for a play garment, but there were many other facrics used. We have noted some unusual fabrics, This was in part because it was still fairly common for mothers to make children's clothing. This mean that mothers could choose whatever fabric they wanted. The ready-made tunic suits were more likely to be made in standard materials and colors. Mothers being mothers sometimes chose fabrics they thought as especially stylish for their little darlings. We notice one Cananadian boy wearing a polkadot suit.


The sailor tunic, as were tunics in general, were primarily boys' style and garment. HBC has, however, noted that girls also wore these tunics. I'm not sdure if the wore the same style as the boys or if special tunic suits were made for girls. I'm also not positive what age girl wore them. It does appear, however, that girls wore thm as a play suit. For a formal occasion they almost certainly would have worn a dress.

Hair Styles

Boys with sailor tunics wore a wide range of hair styles. Boys had hair cuts from short hair to ringlet curls--some even with hair bows. Quite young boys wore sailor tunics. Thus it was not unusual for boys in these tunics to still have long hair, sometimes even ringlet curls. The fashion of long ringlets was still quite popular in the 1900s when sailor tunics were most popular. It was by the 1900s becoming less common for older boys to have ringlet curls, especially by the 1910s. More common though was naturally curly hair worn at lengths above the shoulders. Even so qwuite a number of boys still had ringlets and were photographed in tunic suits. Usually they were younger boys. Rarely do you see an older boy in sailor tunics and ringlets. While not common some of the boys in ringlets also wore hair bows for formal portraits.


The most common headwear for the boys wearing sailor tunics at the turn of the century was the wide brimmed sailor hat with a streamer. Some boys also wore sailor caps. While the sailor-styled headwear were by far the most common styles worn with sailor tunics, there were many other styles worn. The peaked cap was a popular sdtyle at the turn of the century. While normally worn by older boys. It was occasionally worn by a boy in a sailor tunic.

Country Trends

These sailor tunics were worn by boys in many countries. They seem to have been especially popular in America. Many American boys wore tinics and sailor styles were the most popular. We have a page on American sailor tunics. We note sailor tunics in most European counties as well. We notice Canadian boys wearing them. American and Canadian styles seem quite similar.


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Created: January 30, 1999
Spell check: July 20, 1999
Last updated: 6:56 PM 12/11/2007