Children’s Fashion: History of the Sailor Suit
The sailor suit was the first popular children’s fashion trend. The impulse that set the ball in motion was Queen Victoria’s decision to dress the four-year Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, in a scaled down version of the sailor suit of the Royal British Navy. The young Prince wore the sailor suit on the royal family’s visit to the Channel Islands in 1846. His portrait was painted at the same time. The portrait, as well as a series of engravings, helped to popularize the sailor suit among the British public.
Queen Victoria’s decision to dress Prince Edward in the sailor suit was obviously designed to court favor with the British public and make a favorable impression for the British monarchy. Prince Edward’s sailor suit was modeled on the suit worn by the regular sailor in the Royal Navy rather than an officer’s uniform. In the 19th century England was the most powerful colonial power and the Royal Navy was the biggest navy in the world. The sailor suit helped to strip away the class distinctions that were a prominent aspect of British culture. As a fashion trend the sailor suit had a strong social impact.
The sailor suit did not become a popular fashion trend for children overnight. British boys began wearing sailor suits in the 1860s, fifteen years after Prince Edward’s portrait. Prince Edward began dressing his own sons in sailor suits in the 1870s and, once again, the influence of the royal family helped to popularize the sailor suit for young children. The fashion trend really took root in the 1870s when advertisers began marketing it. By the 1880s the sailor suit was a popular fashion trend for girls as well as boys. The sailor suit became so popular in the 1880s that few boys grew up in England without wearing it and, for some, was practically all they wore.
The enthusiasm of the sailor suit in England, in the 1880s, soon became contagious and spread to other countries in Europe. Russia and the United States picked up on the trend. The individual countries designed their own versions of sailor suit to conform to the Navy and style of their particular country. At the same time, the sailor suits shared a few basic a few basic characteristics. Boys wore a middy top with shorts or long trousers. Girls wore a skirt in place of trousers. The children’s sailor suits resembled actual navy uniforms and they often had stars, anchors, and eagles sewn on.
In England boys originally wore bell-bottoms rather than long trousers or shorts. The sailors in the Royal Navy wore bell-bottoms which made it easy to roll their pant legs up when they swabbed the deck. In 19th England, sailor suits were originally designed for seaside holidays. The suits were designed to withstand the salt water and sunshine. Mass production helped to make sailor suits affordable and popular with the middle class. They became popular all year round and not just on the seaside holiday.
One of the major reasons why sailor suits were such a popular fashion trend is that kids and parents liked them. Children probably enjoyed the aura of military style. From the parent’s perspective, sailor suits were versatile and durable. Sailor suits are ideal for a variety of social situations, from the formal to the informal. In the late nineteenth century girls began to wear red wool twill sailor top with a pair of black bloomers and uses as a gym uniform- they allowed more freedom of movement.
The sailor suit was the first popular trend in children’s fashion. It originally had the air of royalty about it, but, at the same time, it served to break down class distinctions and hierarchy. Iconic cartoon figures like Donald Duck and Popeye testify to the popularity of the sailor suit among kids.
The heyday of the sailor suit’s popularity has declined but it is still popular for special events such as weddings, first communion ceremonies, and Easter services, and family photographs. It is a type of formal wear for young boys and girls that evoke a sense of the past. The young Prince William wore a sailor suit to his uncle’s wedding. The sailor suit has been the traditional uniform of the Vienna Boy’s Choir for decades.
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