*** boys sailor suits

Boys Sailor Suits

boys' sailor suits
Figure 1.--These two American boys in about the 1910s have been dressed in identical sailor suits with below the knee bloomer pants and long stockings. Note the bangs on the younger boy.

Few boys' clothing styles have been as imortant or so widey worn as the sailor suit. The sailor suit is certainly one of the classic styles for boys' clothing. Originally conceived in England, it soon became an internatiinally acepted style, easily crossing national borders. Interestingly, the classic enlisted man's uniform first worn by the Prince of Wales in 1846 was a relatively novel invention because the Royal Navy had only just begun to regularize uniforms for enlisted men. The classic sailor suit has changed little over time, although the pants worn with it have changed. While the classic style has changed little, there have been many variation on the classic style worn first by the British princes and subsequently by royals and commoners throughout Europe and America.

Fashion Inspiration

The boy's sailor suit was first inspired by the Royal Navy enlisted man's uniform. Interestingly, the classic enlisted man's uniform first worn by the Prince of Wales in 1846 was a relatively novel invention because the Royal Navy had only just begun to regularize uniforms for enlisted men. Some attention had been given to officer's uniform for some time. Enlisted men until the mid-19th centurty, however, lacked uniformity and its the style and even color could vary substantally the period and whim of the clothing contractor and vessel capatain. Even the blue and white convention is a realtively recent development. As the popularity of sailor suits spread to other countries, the uniform of their navies influenced the styles of the sailor suits worn in each country. Of course the British Royal Navy uniform stronly influenced naval uniforms worn around the world. Naval uniforms were not the only fashioin influence. We note both boys' and ghirl's sailor suits that have very fancifal styling, far removed from actual uniforms.


The sailor soon appeared as boys wear in the mid-19th century. It became particularly popular on continental Europe. The classic style was based on the uniform of English elisted sailors. By the mid 19th century many variants emerged with a variety of un-sailor like modifuications. By the late 19th century the clasically styled sailor suit, with national modifications, had become the most widely accepted style for boys in Europe and America. After the 20th century the sailor suit became increasingly identified as a style for younger boys, although older boys continued to wear them into the 1930 in some European countries. The popularity of the sailor suit has declined considerable in the modern era, but uit has not entirely disappeared. It is still occasinaly seen in garments for younger boys or for fiornmal wear at weddings or First Communions.

Ready-made Clothing

The sailor suit became widely popular just at the time in Europe and America when the clothing industry began to mass produce boys' clothing. The industry could, of course, have produced other styles at this time, but I think that the rise of industrialized mass production of boys' clothes in conjunction with a very popular and practical style helped to make the sailor suit a widely accepted way of dressing boys. People already liked sailor suits but now it became possible to purchase them everywhere in the country and more cheaply than before because of the mass production.


There have been many different styles of sailor suits. The classic styles based on the uniforms of English enlisted sailors have been substantailly modified to create a variety of elaborate styles and garments. Some of the modifications have been to adopt the styling of the national navy. In other cases the modifcatiins were to create garments for younger children or tonstyle the rather plain classic suit uin the more elaborate boys' stles of the late 19th century. Changes were also made to the classic bell-bottom trousers to reflect the trousers more commonly worn by boys in different historical periods. Some suits appeared in officer designs, but the classic style of the enlisted sailor remains the standard. We have noticed different terms being used for sailor suits. We do not fully understand what these terms signified. This is complicated by the fact that the terms were not always used consistently.

American boy's sailor suits
Figure 2.--American boys in the 1920s still wore classic sailor suits. This boy of aboy 10 years is outfitted in a summer white suit.


A complete sailor suits were made up of a hat or cap, middy blouse, long or short pants, skirts (for girls and small boys), and sailor hat. Other accesories might include a sleeve buttions, bow, and lanyards with brass whistles. The accessories varied, but the hat of cap was once a very important component. The wide brimmed-sailor hat in fact became so popular that boys wore it with many other garments such as Little Lord Fauntleroy suits or Buster Brown suits. Dickeys were used to cover the space between the "v" of the sailor collars of the middy blouses. Both pull over middy blouses and button front jacket-like blouses wee worn. The bows worn with middy blouses were generally dark blue, even for white suits. The origin of the bow was the black silk neckerchief originally worn by seamen and called a "sweat rag." Boys in the Victorian era wore either long or short pants with their middy blouse. Some of the earliest sailor suits had long trousers, often with bellbottom trousers like those actually worn by British seamen. Sailor suits were worn with long stockings or socks depending on the chronological period and or season. Footwear varied chronolgically and between countries as well.

Other Sailor Garments

There were a range of sailor garments that were not part of sailor suits

Sailor dresses

Sailor kilt suits


Sailor tunics are a little tricky to assess. Some tunics look rather like jackets and are thus not obvuiously idenyifiable as tunics. And the detailing in some case is also similar. This is mostly the case with tunics done around the turn -of-th 20th century. Most button button as do jackets, although often at the side so the buttons are not readily apparent in most photogtaphs, Others button down the front like jackets and these look somewhat like jackets. Tunics also vary in length. Some, especially the fronmt buttoning tunics are cut at about the same length as jackts. Others are more readily identifiable as tunics. They are cut much longer to about knee length. One strong inficators of tunics is an ornamental belt. As the belts are worn over the tunic at waist level, they can not possibly be used to hold up pants. These belts are done in various material. They are often, byt bnot always done in contrasting colors so they show up clearly in photographs.


The boys generally preferred sailor suits to other alternatives such as kilts and Fautleroy suits. One fashion colunist writing in The Lady's World (1887) indicated that A boy before he rises to the dignity of trousers and jackets is never as happy as in a Middy suit or Jack Tar, and these suits are now selling in thousands. The style became very popular in America and many European countries, especially Germany and Italy where they were mostly worn with short pants.


Naval uniforms around the world are always blue and white, often worn alternatively on a seasonal basis. It is not know with certaintly why blue was adopted a suitable color for naval uniforms and classic sailor suits for boys. The conection with blue water is obvious. Naval uniforms did not, however, become standardized until the 18th Century. The British were not the first to adopt a standard uniform. One account reports that British naval officers meeting at their favorite watering hole, "Will's Coffee House", Scotland Yard, decided in 1745 that they would petition the Admiralty for an official uniform in order to standardize as in other navies of the day. As a result, the Admiralty asked certain officers to appear in what they considered a good design. Some liked gray with red facings. Captain Philip Saumerez is reported, by tradition, to have worn a blue uniform with while facings. Blue and white was chosen by the Admiralty. The story goes that since George II had to make the final decision, he selected the colors from the riding habit of the First Lord's wife, the Duchess of Bedford, who was riding in the park. But it is said that to gain his Majesty's consent, the Duchess wore the colors already selected by her husband.

curls abnd sailor suts
Figure 4.--American writer Thomas Wolfe outfitted in a classic sailor suit in a photograph taken about 1908. Long curls on a boy his age were no longer common.


The detailing on the classic sailor suit was always three stripes on the collar and back flap which were sometimes repeated on the cuffs. Nautical motiffs might appear at the front "v" on the dickey or shirt worn under the middy blouse and sometimes in the corners of the back flap. Other than these details, the sailor suit was quite plain. While this was the classic style, many variations appeared. Some of the more elaborate variations were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th century.


The sailor suit was one of the most popular fashions of the end of the 19th century for both boys and girls. Boys wore the tunic with long pantaloons or increasingly popular straight knee pants. After the turn of the century shorts appeared, but until after the First World War (1918) continued to be rather long. Girls wore the tunic with the kilted skirt. The suits were made in blue or wh ite serge for winter and of French flannel, linen or duck for summer.


Sailor suits were first worn by boys, but sailor outfits were eventually worn by both boys and girls. HBC has received several inquiries about girls sailor outfits. Unfortunately there is no sister site to address historic girls styles. Some basic information on girls sailor outfits is helpful in assessing old photographs. Girls generally wre sailor outfits of middy blouses and skirts and eventually sailor dresses. Boys appear to have worn early sailor dresses. Girls dresses from a fairly early period appear with elements of sailor styling before they can be called actual sailor dresses. Conventions varied greatly over time and between cuntries. Girls may have worn sailor suits with bloomers. HBC has not noted sailor suits with trousers, either short or long trousers. Girls did wear sailor tunics like the ones worn by boys.

Hair Styles

Boys wore sailor suits with many different hair styles. Generally a sailor suit was deemed apropriate only after he had his hair cut short. The cutting of a boy's hair was a major step for the child. Many boys in the late 19th century had long hair, some times worn in ringlet curls. The cutting of a boy's hair was generally left to the mother. Some boys had their hair cut while still in dresses. Other boys continued to wear long hair well after they were breeched, often with fancy Little Lord Fauntletoy party suits. With few exceptions, however, a boy's hair would almost always be cut when he was oufitted for a sailor suit. Even for a sailor dress his hair might be cut. While he may wear bangs or curls, long ringlet curls were not commonly worn with sailor suits.

boy's white sailor suits
Figure 5.--Elennor Roosevelt in his photograph taken about 1920 has both her older boys dressed in classic white middy blouses.

Family Fashions

Some parents like to outfit all of the children or at least some of them in identical or similar sailor suits. Sometimes only the younger children would wear sailor suits, in other instances it might be the older ones. Some times there were combinations of sailorvdresses, tunics, and suits or other styles depending on the age or gender of the children.


The sailor suit was the most utilitarian of garments. It was one of the most widely worn garments for boys and was popular for about a century. It was worn for just about every conceiveable purpose. Boys in the 19th century did not have large wardrobes so the sailor suit was worn for both everyday war and dressing up. There may have been one suit for best wear and and as that began to show a little wear it was used for everday wear. The dress up sailor suits were thus styled like and made in the same material everyday suits. There were some exceotions. We see some suits done in luxurous fabrics like velvet. These would have been only worn voir best. Dressy sailor suyits would have been worn to church and to parties. Boys also wore sailor suits for everday wear. And after the turn-of-the 20th century, wash play suits became available. The difference would have been the material and styling. They were in expensive sailor suits made for everyday wear for play. The sailor suit was commonly worn to school. This varies by country abnd chronologically. This was particulzrly common in Europe. A sailor suit school unuform was not common, but individual boys wearing sailor suits to school was very common. We note European boys wearing boys wearing dressy sailor suits special in the early 20th century for dressy sailor suits. Even in the 20 century, the tradituinal sailor suit was such a versital garment that it could be worn for special. occassions, school, or everday wear.

Modern Usage

Boys continued to commonly wear sailor suits in Europe and America through the 1920s and 30s. The popularity and usage varied substantially from country to country. Quite old boys wore sailor suits on the comtinent during the 1920s and 30s, often with short pants. This was particularly true in Germany and France as well as some other cointinental countries. . British boys generally didn't wear sailor suits commonly after 8 or 9. This was because boys from affluent families generally were sent off to boarding school at about 8 years of age. These boys generally did not want to wear sailor suits as they would be teased by the other boys. Instead they tended to wear their school uniforms. In both America and Britain by the 1940s, only younger boys were wearing sailor suits. Sailor suits do continue to be worn in the 1990s in specufic, specialized circumstances. Often they are worn now as costumes rather than as normal clothing. We see saolot suits become worn for more specialized occassions and groups such as wedding costumes, First Communions, choirs, and youth groups.

French boy's sailor suits
Figure 6.--This image is from a postcard sold in England during the 1910s. It shows a common style for sailor suits. I'm not sure though if the boy pictured is English or French, but I think probably French. Notice the all-white collar without the stripes and the unusual white bow--both suggesting a French style.

National Fashions

The styles and materials for the middy blouse varied greatly. Authentic ones included three white stripes, reportedly for Nelson's three great victories--but many authors dispute this. Traditionally styled suits were worn theoughout Europe and america. There were some differences, however, between countries. We note many different styles being worn in Germany. This was also true in America where were some especially destinctive styles. Sailor suits were generally blue or white, worn with maching stckings. The white suits were generally worn during the summer. Many of the sailor suits worn by European and American boys were in fact quite similar, but there were some major differences. The French in particular had some destinctive styles. Some of the differences between styles in different countries and trends overtime in different countries are due to the various uniforms worn by sailors in national navies. Some of the countries in which the sailor suit was most commonly worn by boys included: England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United States.

Political Connotations

The sailor suit today appears to us as an inocuous outfit for small boys, completely devoid of military or political significance. This was decidely not the case in the 19th and early 20th century. The style was first conceived by Queen Victoria (or more likely Prince Albert) as a way of popularizing the monarchy by wraping it in the most popular British institution--the Royal Navy. The popularity of the sailor suit was fueled by the naval arms race in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the time, the battleship was the super weapon of the era. No country was considered a major power without a flotilla of battleships. Thus the navies of the world achieved great national prestige--in part explaining why the sailor suit proved so popular with both parents and boys.


The sailor suit was such an important boy's style and persisted so long that one has to ask why it went out of style. Of course no style lasts for ever. Thus it would be expected that the popularity would not last for ever. The sailor style certainly lated longer than virtualy any other boys' style. HBC believes that the primary reason that the sailor uit declined in popularity among boys is that it became associated with younger boys and even worse, from a boys' point of view, girls. A variety of other factor were no doubt involved. We note that the popularity of the sailor suit began after World War I. The association with nationl power and imperialism which had helped make the sailor suit so popular was no longer nearly as fashionable among parents. The association with rylty may hav also been trnished.

Vintage Suits

We have acquired images of several vintage sailor suts to HBC, but we are not precisely sure where all of them are archived at this time. We have noted a linnen sailor tunic worn at the turn of the 20th century by an American boy. We have found one middy blouse. We also have information on German sailor suits. We have very little chronological information on these suits, but have had to estimate how old they are. These pages on vintage sailor suits are especially helpul to show the colos these suits were made in. This is very useful in helping to assess th color of the many black and white images archived on HBC.

Adult Fashion Inspiration

It has been said that the fashion industry owes an enormous debt to the Navy. No other branch of the military has so inspired fashion designers. This has been the case now for nearly two centuries. This inspiration continues with modern designers. Calvin Klein began by selling stylish versins of Navy peacoats. Michael Kors' style is defined by his special touches to classic sailor silhouettes including the rugged turtlenecks and peacoats. John bartlett has used stylized sailor pants to set the tone in 1998 for both his men's and women's collections. Thus changes in Navy fashions are important news in fashion industry circles, The U.S. Navy announced in 1998 that they were end the use of bell bottom dungarees that had been worn by junior enlisted men and women. These were the primary workpants aboard ship. Instead American sailors will now be wearing straight leg trousers with a cotton-polyester blend. Some may think that from a purely aesthetic perspective that the demise of the bell-bottoms is a step in the right direction. Let's face it, they are a rather lame style. They do look a little rediculous. But perhaps this is precisely the appeal of the the sailor suit. Navy clothes have been so offbeat, so destinctive, so different from civilian style. Just think about the square collar or the various styles of sailor hats with dangling streamers.

Personal Experiences

The 1880s-England: Ernest Shepard

The 1890s-France: Paul

The 1890s-France: The Zolas

Additional Information

Fashion article: 1920s


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Created: April 10, 1998
Last updated: 10:52 PM 2/4/2014