Sailor suits and the Sydney Naval Review

Boy's two-piece sailor suit, wool gabardine, with reproduction necktie and hat, probably made in England, 1915-1925. Powerhouse Museum collection, A7722.
Boy’s two-piece sailor suit, wool gabardine, with reproduction necktie and hat, probably made in England, 1915-1925. Powerhouse Museum collection, A7722.

With thousands of sailors in Sydney this week for the International Fleet Review, celebrating 100 years since the Australian Navy sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1913, I thought I’d write about
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 boys’ clothing in Britain, Europe and America, and was later adapted for girls. A version of the sailor suit had been worn by boys in the early 19th century, developing from the obsession for ‘pretend’ uniforms. However, its popularity began when the four-year-old son of Queen Victoria, ‘Bertie’, 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. This was a strict interpretation of the then current naval ratings’ uniform, white cotton drill bell-bottom trousers with a fall front (button front flap) and a white blouse with a large blue sailor collar trimmed with three rows of white braid, incorrectly attributed to Nelson’s three victories! A black silk knotted neckerchief represented the neckerchief worn by sailors and called a ‘sweat rag’ and a small knife, for splicing and cutting ropes, hung in a sheaf from a cord belt around his waist.

Although the sailor suit craze had its roots in the 1840s it wasn’t until the 1870s that it really took off 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. The two basic sailor suit components are the middy blouse and the trousers. At first the 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”. 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.

Sepia, studio portrait of box kite inventor, Lawrence Hargrave's son, Geoffrey, in a sailor suit, c1895. Powerhouse Museum collection, P2903-9/83.
Sepia, studio portrait of box kite inventor, Lawrence Hargrave’s son, Geoffrey, in a sailor suit, c1895. Powerhouse Museum collection, P2903-9/83.

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. 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 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. It was so enthusiastically adopted that some Victorian boys wore nothing else. 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 of 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.

The sailor suit was said to be the first child’outfit to strip away class distinction and heralded the classless fashions of the future. It stayed in fashion in Britain until after the First World War and well into the twentieth century. Cartoon characters, Donald Duck, wore sailor suits and sea scouts in several countries base their uniforms on their national navies. They were commonly used as uniforms for boys’ choirs, especially in Europe, like 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. Indeed, a young Prince William, older brother of Prince Harry, who was here in Sydney to review our Navy, wore a sailor suit to his uncle’s wedding in 1986.

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.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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