Sailor suit, boy's, two piece, jacket and trousers, wool gaberdine, with reproduction necktie (prop) and hat (prop), [made in England], 1915-1925
The sailor suit is a style of child's clothing based on the traditional uniform worn by seamen enlisted in the Royal Navy . It developed into the most popular form of boy's clothing in Britain, Europe and America, and was later adapted for girls by replacing the trousers with skirts. The sailor suit was popularised by Queen Victoria's son Prince Albert Edward in the 1840s and linked the popularity of the British navy with the monarchy. It was comfortable and practical for children to wear in both summer and winter, for both formal and informal occasions, and became adopted by both the upper and middle classes as it could be mass produced cheaply and well. It was so enthusiastically adopted that some boys wore nothing else.
As well as this, the sailor suit is significant because it was said to have been the first style of child's fashion which stripped away class distinction and heralded the classless fashions of the future. The sailor suit remained in fashion in Britain until after the First World War and developed into a lasting legacy well into the twentieth century. Cartoon characters Popeye and Donald Duck are featured wearing sailor suits, and sea scouts in several countries base their uniforms on their national navies. Sailor suits have commonly been used as uniforms for boys' choirs, especially in Europe as seen by members of the Vienna Boys' Choir. Today the popularity of the sailor suit has declined, but they are still occasionally worn by younger boys or for formal wear at weddings or first communions. A young Prince William wore a sailor suit to his uncle's wedding. Clearly, the sailor suit is a tangible representation of British political and social history and a very popular form of children's dress which spread around the world in the early twentieth century.
A version of the sailor suit was worn by boys in the early 19th century, developing from the obsession with 'pretend' uniforms. However, its popularity began when the four-year-old son of Queen Victoria, 'Bertie' Albert Edward the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), had a sailor suit made for him in 1846 while on board the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert during a summer trip to Ireland. The sailor suit was a strict interpretation of the current naval rating's uniform. It comprised white cotton drill bell-bottom trousers with a fall front (button front flap), a design which had changed little since the late 18th century. The white blouse had a large blue sailor collar, trimmed with three rows of white braid, incorrectly attributed to Nelson's three victories. A black silk neckerchief is knotted in the correct manner representing the neckerchief worn by sailors and called a 'sweat rag'. A small knife, for splicing and cutting ropes, hung in a sheaf from a cord belt around his waist.
Apparently the suit was said to have been designed and made for the prince by a Bond Street tailor, an official naval outfitter who made the uniforms for the sailors on board the Royal yacht. The sailor suit was immortalised by the artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter who painted Bertie while on board the Royal yacht. The painting was said to have been a Christmas gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria and now hangs in Buckingham Palace. It was this painting showing the prince as a swaggering 'Jack Tar' character which began the world-wide children's fashion which still flourishes in places today. It stripped away the former class distinction as the prince was shown as a sailor rather than an officer. Nevertheless, some later sailor suits appeared more like that of an officer's uniform and still illustrated the entrenched hierarchy.
Although the Prince's sailor suit was inspired by the Royal Navy enlisted man's uniform, this in effect was a new development as the Navy had only just begun to regularise sailors' uniforms. Naval uniforms were first introduced in the Royal Navy in 1748 but only for officers and midshipmen, and from 1787 for warrant officers. For enlisted men the style and colour varied depending on the clothing contractor and vessel's captain. It was not until 1857 that the Admiralty set down a uniform for all British navy ratings.
Although the sailor suit craze had its roots in the 1840s it was not until the 1870s that it really became popular when Prince Edward dressed his own two sons in sailor suits. Advertisers were quick to capitalise on the Royal tastes by advertising sailor suits 'as worn by the Royal princes'. By the 1880s it was widely worn by both boys and girls. Girls wore it with a pleated skirt. Few English boys in the Victorian period grew up without wearing a sailor suit and for some boys they wore practically nothing else.
The two basic sailor suit components are the middy blouse and the trousers. The first trousers were bell-bottoms as worn by British sailors because they could be easily rolled up to swab the deck. Gradually knickerbockers and later shorts were worn. The middy blouse was either the pull-over variety or button front jacket-type. A dickey or shirt was sometimes worn under the middy blouse decorated with a nautical motif at the front "v". Another variation was the middy suit with short page-boy jacket added to the sailor outfit while a reefer coat was introduced in about 1880. Other accessories added by parents might include a lanyard with brass whistle, knife, as well as the correct badges, insignia of rank and good conduct stripes.
An important part of the sailor suit was the hat. During the 1860s and 1870s the sailor hat was of natural straw trimmed with a tally band (black ribbon). This was really a yachting hat with a low, flat crown and straight narrow brim. Later, this changed to a 'Royal Tar hat' featuring a wide, up-curving brim with the ribbon often woven with the name of a ship. Another variation was a man-of-war cap, a round flat cap with a headband also bearing the name of a ship. A French navy style tam o'shanter was also popular.
The sailor suit was initially worn as casual wear for holidays at the seaside in white drill with a straw hat. For a prolonged seaside visit it was important to have clothes which would stand up to sunshine and salt water and the sailor suit was ideal. A seaside holiday was increasingly enjoyed by the growing middle classes who were encouraged to visit due to the construction of an efficient railway network. Rather than just being worn by the upper class, the sailor suit could be made more cheaply because it became popular at a time when the clothing industry began to move into mass production. It was easy to make and was quickly drawn into the ready-to wear market which grew after the sewing machine became a practical proposition.
The sailor suit soon became so popular that it was worn throughout the year including winter when it was made in navy blue serge with a cloth cap. It could also be dressed up for formal wear with the addition of gold and silver braid. The fashion spread to Germany, France and other European countries and found its way to Russia in a style based on that country's uniforms. A similar version appeared in the United States similar to the uniform and the United States navy. By the turn of the twentieth century a photograph of Europe's young princes and princesses showed almost every child dressed for the high seas.
It was Britain's grand boast that she ruled the seas and her navy was the proudest symbol of that rule and her Empire. Young British boys dressed as sailors brought a parental and symbolic glow of pride into every home. The sailor suit therefore not only represented a social fashion statement but a political one as well relating to the naval arms race before the First World War when the strength of a country's navy was paramount.
Ewing, Elizabeth, "History of Children's Costume", B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1977
Rose, Clare, "Children's Clothes Since 1750", B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1989.
Cunnington, Phillis & Anne Buck, "Children's Costume in England: from the fourteenth to the end of the Nineteenth Century", Adam & Charles Black, London, 1972.