Sailor suit

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Prince Albert Edward in a sailor suit, by Franz Winterhalter (1846).
Drawing of a boy in a white sailor suit.

A sailor suit is a uniform traditionally worn by enlisted seamen in the navy, and other government funded sea services. It later developed in to a popular clothing style for children.


Its exact origin is not clear, but it was probably more of a matter of tradition than of regulation. The bell-bottomed trousers were easily rolled to the knee for deck work. The black neckerchief could be worn as a sweat cloth. Tradition has it that the color black was in memory of the death of British Admiral Horatio Nelson, but from a practical standpoint, black did not show tar stains. (Tar was used extensively on wooden ships - particularly for a waterproof coating for the rigging.) The jumper's wide collar - which was originally detachable - also prevented tar stains on the body of the uniform. Finally, the enlisted sailor's short jacket allowed freedom of movement in mounting the ratlines, manning the footropes and other sailing necessities. Any uniformity in seamen's uniforms was strictly the result of similarities of garments sold in the slop stores - the early variation of the ship's store, or from the involvement (and wealth) of the ship's commander.

Only in the early nineteenth century, after the Napoleonic wars, governments starting prescribing a standard uniform.

In the United States, the first standard uniform was issued in 1817. Through government procurement, winter and summer uniforms were provided. White duck jacket, trousers and vest made up the summer uniform, while the winter uniform consisted of a blue jacket and trousers, red vest with yellow buttons and a black hat.[1]

Sailors in the Royal Navy were not given an official uniform until 1857 [2], although earlier attempts were made to enforce standardization amongst crews.

Sailor suits for children[edit]

In 1846, the four-year-old Albert Edward, Prince of Wales was given a scaled-down version of the uniform worn by ratings on the Royal Yacht. He wore his miniature sailor suit during a cruise off the Channel Islands that September, delighting his mother and the public alike. Popular engravings, including the famous portrait done by Franz Winterhalter, spread the idea, and by the 1870s, the sailor suit had become normal dress for both boys and girls all over the world.

The Vienna Boys' Choir has used sailor suit uniforms for its members since the 1920s. In several East Asian countries, some (predominately girls') primary schools continue to prescribe sailor-themed wear as school uniforms (Sailor fuku). In Japan, this has led to fetishization of such clothing, as witnessed for example by its prominence within manga and anime. Some Western cartoon and comic characters also use a sailor suit as their trademarks; examples include Popeye and Donald Duck.


Examples of boys and girls in sailor suits (not including Sailor fuku) in spanking art:


  1. Charles A. Malin, Ratings and the Evolution of Jobs in the Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Navy Department, Washington DC, 1971
  2. Royal Navy, The History of Rating Uniforms

See also[edit]


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