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The Sailor Suit: history and Influences

The sailor suit, as a fashion trend, begun in the Victorian Age, developing at first as a children costume phenomenon; worn as school uniform and then for sport performances, it has kept its popularity until today.

Like many naval-inspired designs, the sailor suit originated with the British navy and was then copied into other navies. The uniform, in its most traditional form, was worn by enlisted seamen in the navy and other government funded sea services. It is also known as “Number One” uniform, its first use is for ceremony, taking this name from the old working rigs of Royal Navy sailors. Since its first introduction in 1857, it has changed continuously, to adapt to the costume evolutions of each period, but always keeping some details, and precisely the blue jean collar, as its most recognisable items.

"The Royal Navy of England and the Story of the Sailor Suit" Trade pamphlet on children's garments issued by Wm Rowe of Gosport, Cowes & London. England, ca. 1900. Printed paper. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert museum. CC BY SA

It was the 1846, when Queen Victoria was delighted, during a cruise off the Channel Islands, by seeing her four-year-old son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, wearing a scaled-down version of the sailor suit of the Royal British Navy. His portrait was painted at the same time, right when the British Navy was the most powerful naval force in the world and its uniform had recently been standardized. So the portrait, as well as a series of engravings, made the sailor suit became popular among the British public; later it was introduced as a normal dress for both boys and girls all over the world, with some variations through different nations, according to the specific naval uniform of each country.

Gymnastic uniform. Sailor suit. 1910. Courtesy of Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris. All rights reserved

The sailor suit became the first popular children’s fashion trend by the 1880s, when advertisers began marketing it. For boys it consisted in a middy top with shorts or long trousers, replaced by a skirt in the feminine version. The two models had in common typical marine designs as stars, anchors or eagles, sewn on as badges. Ready-made or sewn at home, they closely resembled actual naval uniforms and used to change togheter with the development of the official ones. They were usually made of washable, sturdy fabrics like wool serge and allowed relative freedom of movement. Probably depending on this, sailor suits have soon been adopted for a variety of social situations, helping to strip away the class distinctions, a prominent aspect of British culture. Also sailor suits were frequently worn as school uniforms, probably due to their military origins and to an association with order and discipline.

Born as a thought-for-men ensemble, the sailor suit has anyway influenced women’s style in more than one way. In May 1904, Harper’s Bazaar called a sailor suit ‘the most serviceable all-around frock a girl can have’; a female version of the sailor suit, the sailor dress, was popularly known in early 20th century America. Since then, women’s fashion picked it up as casual seaside wear and it became associated with sport, summer and leisure. Elements of nautical style were absorbed into adult dress, including blue and white stripes, square sailor collars and wide, loose trousers, which are enduring elements of spring and summer dress.

Discover more sailor suits on the Europeana Fashion portal and follow @Europeanafashionofficial on Instagram to discover the sailor suit’s curation of this week!

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