Other Sailor Suits: Non-traditional Styles

Figure 1.--Many variants of the classic sailor suit appeared in the late 19th century. Some were similar to the classic designs, some were not. The long curls and style date this photograph to the late 1880s or early 1890s. Note the rather elaborate strap shoes.

The sailor suit popularized by Queen Victoria in the 1840s for the young princes was accurately based on the actual uniforms worn by British seamen of the day. The style was not an immediate success, but it gradually grew in popularity. This became increasingly true beginning in the 1870s when the important countries of the world began to build modern navies. A modern fleet was beginning to become almost a symbol of the modern nation state. The sailor suit for boys grew in popularity. Both boys and parents liked them. Often after a boy was breeched, passing from dresses and kilts, the first boyish suit he received was a sailor suit and by the 1870s this was increasingly a suit with kneepants. In the 1880s Fauntleroy suits alao became popular for boys after breeching.


Many clothing designers did not closely follow the classic design of the sailor suit. A great many variants appeared to both the middy blouse as well as the pants.

Middy blouse

Most sailor blouses had he classic styling of actual sailor uniforms. This meant a traditional unadorned straight "v" cut in the front of the middy blouse. The traditional style might have a variety of dickies. The traditional back style was a large square cut flap. Many more fanciful styles developed. Some simply redesigned the collar into forms not worn by any sailors. A variety of designs were applied to the "v" collar and back flap, such as scalloping or square cuts. Others varied the colors from the white, blue, and black worn by actual sailors. Stripes became very popular in the 1880s. Others considerably embelished the sailor blouse with copious lace and ruffles, a particularly un-sailor approach.


Some of the non-classic sailor suits had jackets instead of middy blouses. Middy blouses pulled over the head. Sailor suit jackets had buttons just like regular jackets. They were usually not worn with dickies, but rather with a shirt and tie or bow, just like regular jackets.

Figure 2.--This photograph was probably taken in the 1890s. The boy wears a jacket with sailor styling and a bowtie rather than a classic middyblouse. Note the three ornamental buttons on his knee pants.


The pants came in different styles, but were not nearly as varied as the blouses and jackets. The original sailor suit which Queen Victoria used for the young princes were long bell-bottomed trousers. Sailors suits for the next 100 years were sometimes worn with long trousers. More common by thr 1870s had become kneepants. After the turn of the century knicker and short pants were mostly worn. A few boys still wore long pants, but most boys wore knee-length pants which before the turn of the century were mostly worn with long stockings. As the turn of the century some boys wore their knee pants with ankle socks.As only younger boys wore sailor suits by the 1920s, short pants were more common. Older European boys wore sailor suits, mostly with short pants. Generally speaking, the sailor suits worn with pants, short or long, were generally worn with middy blouses of classic designs.


Some younger boys wore middy blouses with dresses or kilts. It was these boys that were generally outfitted with middy blouses or other suits of the more classic desisns.

Figure 3.--This 1880s image shows a boy in a fairly traditional summer sailorsuit, except for the square cut middly blouse. The photograph is somewhat unusual in that most mothers who kept their boys in long curls wanted them displayed in portraits. This mother instead had her son wear his large, wide-brimmed sailor hat.


These other sailor suits were made in a variety of various styles. One of the most common was the non-nautical style.


The sailor suit is often most associated in styles actually worn by sailors in national navies. Some suits took the basic sailor collar, deep frontal "V" and back flap and replaced the classic three stripes and nautical motiffs with embroidery totally irelated to sailor or nautical styling. This non-nautical style was worn mostly in the 1890s and 1900s. It was much less common than the bnautical style. HBC knows relatively little baout the style and how it varied among countries, age groups, and genders.


These non-traditional sailor suits appeared in many other styles.

Hair fashion

Boys outfitted in sailor suits, even with knee pants, generally had their curls, cut and wore short hair. However this was not always the case as with the boy in figure 1. Boys in sailor dresses and kilts were more likely to be kept in curls. As the turn of the Century approached, boys with Dutch boy bangs became more common.


Some of the styles that diverged from classic sailor suit fashions over time included:

Mid-19th Century

The sailor suits popularized by Queen Victoria faithfully copied the uniform of the English sailor in design and also in the bell-bottomed trousers. Knee pants in the 1840s were not commonly worn by boys so most of the sailor suits in the 1840s and 1850s had long trousers. Dresses for younger boys and girls generally did not use the sailor motif. Many of the suits appearig for boys did not faithfully copy the classic design worn by the British princes, especially in France and America. I think this was partly due to the fact that photography was in its infancy and fashion magazines not nearly as well illustrated and deseminated as was the case by the end of the 19th Century.

Figure 4.--This American boy wears a sailor suit popular in the 1910s and early 1920s. It lacks the stripes of a classic sailor suit, but was quite severe with none of the fanciful styling of the late 19th and early 20th Century styles. The source dates this image at 1910, but I'm not sure how acurately. Note the use of buttons on the jacket, sleeves, and pants.

Late 19th Century

Sailor suits by the 1870s were much more likely to conform to the classic styling worn by actual contemporary sailors. Some boys wore long trousered sailor suits, but knee pants worn with long trousers was uch more common as these were the trousers generally worn by most boys and by the 1890s even older boys. After the Fauntleroy craze of the mid-1880s, some mothers began to think of the classic sailor suit styling as much to severe for younger boys. As a result, dresses with sailor styling appeared for younger children. Middy blouses appeared with fanciful designs, often trimmed with lace and ruffles. Often these were sailor dresses or middy blouses to be worn with skirts/kilts.

Early 20th Century

These fanciful middy blouses and dresses with lace and ruffled trim continued popular during the 1900s, but began going out of style by the 1910s. After World War I (1914-18) and into the 1920s they had disappeard. Sailor suits returned to the classical styling and were mostly worn with short pants. One style that was popular in America diverged somewhat from the classical style. It had a middy blouse or jacket with the classic "V" cut, but was very plain, lacking even the three strips of any classic sailor suit. This tended to be a style for a formal boys' suit worn to events such as First Communions. Generally by the 1920s, sailor suits were being thought of as more cassual wear in America or suitable school wear in European countries such as Germany.

Mid-20th Century

Christopher Wagner

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