Monday, November 30, 2009

Anchors Aweigh!

Thursday, December 3rd at 7:00 pm, the Sage Costume Collection at Indiana University will present a free lecture open to the public at the Monroe County History Center. Titled “The Sailor Suit: Icon of American Childhood”, Assistant Curator Kelly Richardson and Curator Kate Rowold will explore the history and meaning of a classic children’s look: the sailor suit.

Introduced in 1846 via a painting of the Prince of Wales (the future Prince Albert VII), the sailor suit sustained great levels of popularity with American families in the 19th and 20th centuries. While the high esteem of this ensemble in Great Britain was tied to national identity and pride, the sailor suit (and its many variations) in the United States was wildly popular because of its ease of movement and manufacture, as well as its undisputable “cuteness”.

Albert Edward Prince of Wales, watercolor, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846.

Vanished from the wardrobe of older boys by the 1930s, the sailor look lived well on into the 20th century in girls’ apparel, women's sportswear, and infant's and young children's clothing.

McCall pattern #7938, 1934

Sears catalog, Spring and Summer 1959, page 99.

Sears catalog, Spring and Summer 1959, page 400.

In advertising and the media, sailor suits were worn by Shirley Temple, Cracker Jack, Donald Duck, Raggedy Andy, and Popeye, and used to sell a diverse array of products. The sailor “look” and its individual elements such as the square collar, nautical motifs, and necktie are gleaned by designers and inspire high-fashion looks as seen in the 2007 exhibition Sailor Chic at London’s National Maritime Museum.

John Galliano, Fall 2009

At present, sailor suits for the very young are still available, but most are designed for special occasions such as christenings and weddings. Instantly recognizable, the sailor suit now functions as a symbol of innocent childhood, a charming image of a child at play in an adult role.

Did you wear a sailor suit as a child? Do you have photographs of your ancestors or relatives in sailor suits? Share your childhood clothing memories here!


  1. When I was a child one of the main family photos was the children pictured in sailor suits. My parents have kept these outfits. Not only was this dresses something I wore until I grew out of it, I ended up inheriting my sister's when she grew out of hers. I was wearing the sailor suit for years. This really is a garment that will never go out of fashion. It is something that can always be worn and some sort of modification will always be fashionable.

  2. Thanks, Andrea! Really fascinating to hear that the sailor suit was a part of your family. Now, we just need to see some pictures! My daughter had a very sweet plaid sailor dress as a baby that was a gift from her grandfather's lady friend, and everyone always commented on it when she wore it. It was definitely a special occasion outfit!