*** sailor suits: American styles chronology *** American kilt suits: chronology 1890s

American Sailor Suits: Chronology--The 19th Century

The sailor suit was a major style for boys in the 19th century. Boys' sailor suits did not, however, appear until the mid-19th century. This was in part because the sailor suit itself did not exist until mid-century. We see officers wearing uniforms in the 18th century, but ratings (enlisted men) did not wear uniforms until after the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815). The British after Trafalgar (1805) dominated the seas until challenged by Imperial Germamy in World War I (1914-18). The British were the force to introduce a uniform for ratings and that style influence the uniforms adopted by other countrries. And it was the style used to outfit that Prince Bertie by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (1840s). It became a popular boy's style abd Britain and gradually spread to America. We see some sailor suits in the 1870s, but it did not begin to become an important style until the 1880s. These early sailor suits could be highly vsried. And we begin to see girl sailor outfits, of course with skirts rather than pants. It was at the end if the century perhaps the most important style for boys, at least middle-class boys. And we begin to see more of the traditional style. We see countless examples in the photographic record. And the mail order catalogs have whole pages devoted to different styles of sailor suits.

Early-19th Century

Boys did not wear sailor suits in the early-19th century. We do not have photography to confirm this, but we have not yet found any early-19th century images of sailor suits. A factor here is that enlisted (ratings) sailors in the early-19th century did not wear uniforms. The officers did as well as the marines aboard hip, but not the enlisted men. Only after the Napoleonic Wars do we begin to see standardized uniforms for the regular sailors.

American sailor suits 1870s
Figure 1.--This CDV portrait shows a Brooklyn boy with the family name of Vermeret (writing indistinct) wearing an early sailor suit. The portrait was taken in 1869. Notice the collar. The iconic V-front collar was not not yet standard, but his outfit does look like an actual American naval unifirm at the time.

Early/Mid-Victorian Era (1840-80)

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 Victoria and Albert and their family. We still do not know just who came up with the idea of te sailor suit, but we have collected a great deal of information on the clothes worn by the princes and princesses and their family life. See the Royalty Satellite Site.) Even after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introuced the style it was for several decades little known in America. I am not sure just when sailor suit crossed the Atlantic and began catching on as a boy's fashion. Few images are available from the 1840s and even the 50s because of the relative rarity of photographic images. We habe noted few boys wearing sailor suits in available Daguerreotype portraits. Portraits were still quite expensive and catalogs just beginning to appear. HBC have not noted American sailor suits and hats in the 1840s and 1850s. In fact, boys clothes showing an influence of army uniforms, such as double-breasted jackets with rows of buttons seemed popular. Outfits with army stylistic touches were worn during the Civil War era (1861-65). We notice only a few sailor suits from the 1860s. We do, however, note quite a few boys wearing sailor suits in 1870s portraits. Suits styled just like naval uniforms from this period are relatively rare.

Americn sailor suits 1890s
Figure 2.--This photograph was probably taken in the late-1890s. The boy wears a knnepants sailor suit with long stockings. Some sailor suits were made with long pants, but most were made with knee pants.

Late Victorian Era (1880-1900)

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 important. The enormous popularity of sailor suits was due in part to the importance of English fashion trends. A new generation of royals was dressed in sailor suits and advances in publishing and reproducing images made it much easier for the general public to follow royal dress. Victoria's grand children wore sailor suits, but her great grand children, especially the children of George VI in the 1890s, wore virtually nothing but sailor suits. The emergence of the United States as a major naval power during the late 19th Century was another key factor. The Navy published details on naval uniforms in the 1880s. Vast improvements in naval engineering were being achieved in the late-19th century. Ships were being armored and steam engines were repacing sails. The growing power of the American nation was project abroad by the increasingly powerful, American Navy. It thus seemed to many parents the perfect outfit for their sons and daughters. Sukits based on actual British and American naval uniforms were the most popular, but quite a range of different styles appeared.


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Created: 2:30 AM 11/1/2011
Last updated: 9:23 AM 1/8/2018