*** sailor suits: Italy

Italian wide-brimmed sailor hats
Figure 1.--As in other European countries, wide-brimmed sailor hats were considered stylish for formal boy's wear. This Italian boy was photographed by Emile Zola during a trip to Rome in 1894. He wears a stylish coat over what looks like a white dress. His strap shoes have little pompoms.

Sailor Suits: Italy

Sailor suits proved to be one of the most popular fashions for Italian boys. Despite the fact that Italy had no real navy when the country was unified in the 1860s, Italian mothers in droves turned to the sailor suit. This was probably partly due to the widely held notion in late-19th Century Europe that a modetn navy was the expression of the power and prestige of a modern nation. As countries poured millions in the construction of modern battleships, mothers outfitted generations of boys in sailor suits. Many boys were even dressed in sailor outfits before breeching as dresses with sailor motifs had appeared in the 1890s. While our 19th century archive is very limited, we know much morevabout the 20th century. We see many boy wearing sailor suits in the first half of the 20th century. There seens to have been a social class component. Sailor suits continued to be widely worn throughout the first half of the 20th century. Ssilotr suits did not pass out of fashion until after World War II in the 1940s.

sailor suits
Figure 2.--This Italian boy in a image taken about 1890 wears a double-breasted suit with sailor suit styling. Note the curls and hair bow.


We do not yet have a lot of information om Italiasmn saiolor suits, espedcually during the 19th century. Our 19yth century Italian archive is very limited. Italy only became unified (1860s). Usstria contriolled areas of noyhern Itaky. We assume that the sailor suit was popular in the Austrian controlled areas, generally following trends in Austria itself. We just do not know about the rest of Italy. We suspect sailor suits they began to appear (1860s). The boy here is a rare image we have found of an Italian boys wearing sailor suits in the 19th centuty (figure 2). We haed no reason to believe that the sailor suit was not just as popular oiy in Itgaly as in other coninntsl counties. Thert my have been regional differences. We just do not yet have photographic evidence to substantiate 19th century trends. The style grew in popularity during the 1870s. The style by the 1880s had become a major fashion for boys. Italy like other major European powers began to build a navy, which at the time was seen as a symbol of a great nations power and status. Sailor suits were popular in both contriues with and wuthout navies. Italy began to build a substantial navy in the 20th century. As such the sailor suit be came one of the most popular styles for boys. We know much more about the 20th century we see many bits wearing sailor suits in the first half of the 20th century. As we see so many sailors suits in the 1900s decade, it suggests that thery were common in the 1890s. The styles we see are similar to thes tykes we see in other European countries. We note age variations over time. Italian boys wore sailor suits into their early teens, but we do not yet have a good fix on chrnological age trends. After World War II they seem to have rapidly gone out of style.


One of the most common outfits for Italian boys were sailor suits. I have few details, however, on the particular styles of Italian sailor suits. Based on images of Italian immigrants during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, many of the styles were quite traditional. Suits for wealthier boys may have been available in some less traditional styles, but an assessment of styles will require mich more information. Preliminary indications suggest that dounle-breasted styling may have been especially popular for Italian sailor suits.

Social Class


We have no information on the ages that Italian boys wore sailor suits. I believe, however, that is was comparable to other continental European countries like France and Germany. Again based on photographs of immigrants, sailors suits were comminly worn by boys through about 12-13 years of age. I do remenmber reading about Count Ciano (Musolini's son-in-law) who at the age of trouble was getting into trouble, a little to interested in girls. His father decided he should wear a short pants sailor suit to keep him out of trouble. He was eventually shot by the Germans for conspiring with the Allies.




Itlalian boys like other European boys generally wore dresses in the 19th and and early 20th Century. It was common for boys to wear dresses until 5 or 6 years of age, but this varied widely from family to family. Generally boys from more affluent families wore dresses to an earlier age. I know little about the styles of the dresses, but believe styles for boys and girls were virtually identical until the later-19th century. One style introduced in the later-part of the century was dresses with sailor motiffs. Some of these outfits had sailor collars with tradituinal styling. Other dresses had decidely unsailor styling with lace trim and ruffles.


Italian sailor suits
Figure 3.--Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926) the Italian born American film star was photographed here with his brother and sister. The boy in the sailor suit is his nephew Jean. He pretended he came from an arstocratic family, but in fact was of humble birth from a small town in southern Italy.


The sailor suits were at first mostly with knee socks and long stockings until after the turn of the century. At that time short pants and knee socks appeared. At first the shorts were worn at knee-length, but gradually got shorter. Italian boys in the 1930s began wearing short pants well above knee level. Short pants sailor suits were commonly worn with knee socks.


Coordinated Outfits

Some mothers liked to dress all the kids in identical or coordinated outfits. Most outfits limitd this because girls did not wear pants and boys in the 20th century did not wear dresses. Age and gender conventions this meant that only a narrow ahe band could be used for mamy outfits and gender conventions were also an issue. The sailor suit as it could be worn by both boys and giorls for a wide age range. Thus we notice images of mothers dressiung the kids in sailor suits. Some times all the sailor suits are identical or a least coordubnated. Identical moutdits would have mostlt likely have to be purcased at the same time. In some familoers all the children had sailor suits, but not necesarily identicalm outfits. This of coure varied from family to family. The families involved look to be affluent middle- or upper-class families.


We see many Italian boys wearing sailor suits to school in the late 19th and early 20th century. The sailor suit seems especially popular in the 1910s. Younger children wore smocks, but we see many children in secondary schools, neginng abpit age 11 wearing sailor suit. We note many different styles. We do not notice a dominanant traditional style based on the Italian naval uniform. The popularity in secondary schools shows that the sailor suit as in other countries was especially popular with middle-class families. Working-class children generally did not go to secondary schools. These wee not school uniforms, but outfits parents chose for schoolwear. Sailor suits of course were not the only outfirs selected, but they clearly were a popular choice. Yhey seemed to have slowly declined in popularity after the early 1920s. We do not yet, however, have detailed chronological information. We still see sailor suits during World War II (1939-45). As far as we can tell, the sailor suit disappeared as a school style after the War. We also notice girls wearing sailor outfits, but not as commonly as for the boys.


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Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: 9:22 PM 9/23/2021