*** sailor suits: American styles chronology

American Sailor Suits: Chronology

Figure 1.--This CDV portrait shows an unidentified boy wearing a stylish sailor suit and holding his hat. The portrait was taken by Caleton in Waterville, Maine. The portrait is undated, but looks like the 1870s to us.

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 (1840s). It was then that the Queen began dressing the young princes in the uniforms of an enlisted British sailor. We see sailor suits fairly quickly appearing as boys' outfits in Europe. The fashion did not immediately spread go America. We are not yet sure how rapidly it spread to America, but we do begin to see some examples by the 1870s. We do know that it had become an enormously popular style by the late 20th century (1890s). And it was very popular at the gurn-of-the 20th century. We see boys commonly wering them (1900s). We alkso see many boys wearing sailor suits, but fewer older boys (1910s). The popularity of the sailor suit began to decline after World War I (1920s) as girls increasingly began wearing sailor styles. Fewer and fewer boys wanted to wear them (1930s). We do see younger primary boy wearing them (1930s). We still see some younger boys wearing them (1940s) and they virtually disappeared for boys (1950s). We continue to see girls wearing dresses woith a varistion of sailor styles.

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 cstalohs have whole pages devoted to different styles of sailor suits.

American boys sailor suits
Figure 2.--This unidentified American boy had his portrait taken we think in the early-1920s. His scarfe is tied a little differently than we usully see, but the star is characteristically American. He looks to be about 5-years old. Note the button-on knee-pants style shorts. His hair is cut in a style of bangs we see in the 1910s and 20s.

The 20th Century

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 sailor blouses with matching pants. Gradually knee pants began to be replaced with knickers and to a lesser extent short pants. The white or light-colored sailor suits became increasingly popular after the turn of the century. 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. As sailor suits began to be worn increasinly by smaller boys in the 1930s, the came to be worn primarily with short pants rather than knickers. As a result, blue wool suits became less commonly worn and white sailor suits became much more common. Sailor suits were less commonly worn to school, except by the youngest boys. American boys after World War II no longer commnly wore sailor suits, but the style has never completely disappeared. Girls still wore a range of sailor dresses. Girls might wear sailor dresses to school. They were normally not a dressy style. And we see some boys wearing sailor suits. 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 younger boys were also worn. We do not see them at school or even very commonlky for church. We have so few images that we are not entirely sure just when they were worn and for what occassions.


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Created: January 19, 2003
Last updated: 10:29 PM 5/25/2012