Saluting the Sailor Suit

With the approaching July 4th holiday, we decided to celebrate the endearing tradition of children’s sailor suits.

Introduced from England shortly before the U.S. Civil War, these small outfits were designed to resemble uniforms worn by Navy sailors. By the 1870s, the sailor suit had begun to rise in popularity for younger boys. By the early 1900s, styles included knickers or short pants. The younger the boy, the shorter the pants. The sailor suit stayed popular for boys through the 1930s.

Girls also had a style of sailor suit. The sailor dress or suit became popular for females around 1900 inspired by tailor Peter Thomson. Unlike boys who usually moved away from sailor suits around the ages of 10 – 12; the sailor dress or suit might be worn by younger women as well as girls. The popularity of the sailor dress lasted through World War II before falling out of favor.

Sailor suits were frequently made of linen fabric for summer and wool for winter. Short socks, sometimes with designs on the cuff, or wool or cotton stockings kept legs seasonably cool or warm. An undershirt or dicky was commonly worn underneath, but sometimes removed for warmer weather. While only one of our photographs shows a sailor hat, we do see them listed in advertisements for the time period to help complete the outfit.

These images are from the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Hostetler Collection of glass negatives. They may be found online at www.umvphotoarchive.org on the Davenport Public Library’s website.

We hope you enjoy this look back in time!

DPLVolume 227. Image dpl17128. Alfred H. Eckman c. 1918.

Young Alfred H. Eckman is featured in a sailor suit c. 1918. The longer pants with wide bottoms and U.S. Navy hat are meant to resemble uniforms worn by sailors. This more military style became popular during World War I. The long pants make the outfit unusual.

DPLVolume153. Image dplx720d. Bahnsen Family. c. 1910.

The children of Frank W. Bahnsen are pictured with an older adult female about 1910. Two of the three boys wear sailor suits. The boy in front appears to be wearing knicker pants with dark cotton or wool stockings. The older boy in back looks about 12 or 13. We can’t see his pants, but his shirt, collar, and tie is a replica of those worn by adult men of the time period. The younger boys have matching stripes on their collars and cuff along with the anchor detail on their shirt or dickey.

DPLVolume227. Image dplx433a. Envelope labeled M. Potter. c. 1910.

While we don’t know who these children are yet, we can see the two younger girls in front have variations of the sailor dress, or middy dress as it was also known. The shorter girl’s dress features side buttons down the front. Both have matching embroidery on the dress and the dicky or shirt underneath. Though it would have been in fashion, the tallest girl is wearing a different style dress from the shorter girls.

DPLVolume54. Image dplx522. Frederic G. Homer. c. 1910.

Frederic G. Homer was about 6 or 7 years old in 1910 when this portrait was taken. This sailor suit shows a heavier fabric than the summer linen suits, but remains traditional with a white dickey or shirt underneath with the anchor emblem. The sleeves also have tucks which make it more elaborate than the traditional straight sleeves we usually see with boys’ sailor suits. It appears there were dark buttons on the front of the outfit as well supporting the elaborate feeling.

DPLVolume269. Images dpl17457b and dpl17457. Laurence B. Morrissey c. 1918.

Laurence B. Morrissey was about 3 when these pictures were taken in 1918. With the bare legs and no dickey or undershirt it gives the feel of a warmer weather photo. The straight short pants most likely falling to his knees or slightly above. The cuffs, back of the collar (or tar flap), and portions of the sleeves and pant legs show color. The buttons around the front waist of the outfit may be ornamental or functional in nature. It is hard to tell from the image.

DPLVolume247. Image dpl17290b. Miss Erna Reistein. c. 1918.

Miss Erna Reistein was about 12 or 13 years old when this picture was taken. It appears to be for a graduation or Confirmation. This is a lovely example of the sailor suit. The suit jacket appears to have a loose belt round the middle and the collar features a bow in front. The longer length of skirt fits a young girl moving from the shorter dresses of childhood, but not yet needing the longer dresses of an adult. On a side note, we love her shoes!

DPLVolume87. Image dplx843. Charles Dunn written on envelope. c. 1912.

We thought we would end with this image taken about 1912. While this might be a husband, wife, and son. The young appearance of the man and woman lead us to feel it might possibly be a sibling portrait. We do not see a wedding ring on the woman’s hand, but we might also not be able to see it clearly. We thought this image gave a good view of styles from the time period. It provides a nice look at the knicker shorts of the boy’s sailor suit along with the length of the collar in back. His look is completed by socks and high top shoes.

(posted by Amy D.)

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