Children’s occasionwear in the 19th and 20th centuries was defined by Sailor outfits such as these, and at times worn as dress-up costumes. We found these in our archive and wondered what the history of the children’s sailor suit was, and why it was so popular.


A recent rewatch of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (1982) had us noticing that young Alexander would wear little sailor suits for all occasions; Christmas day, a funeral, a wedding and a christening. We have multiple children’s sailor outfits in the archive (the red coat shown here dates back to the early 20th Century) which made us wonder why the sailor suit had such a stronghold on children’s occasionwear.


This very subject was discussed at the ‘Oh Boy!’ exhibition at the Fashion + Textile Museum; Act Two: Ship Shape, curated by Alasdair Peebles (and featuring photography from our friend Nic Shonfeld), which we visited yesterday. The exhibition showed examples of sailor suits as ‘Sunday best’ in the Late 19th/Early 20th century, examples that were worn as costumes or for dress-up, and a collection of anonymous portraits of naval boys, photographed in high-street photography studios from the 1860s. Naval officers tended to make suits for their children too; a child-size replica of a Sunday rig (smartest uniform) made for Admiral Robert Coote’s son, sewn by the sailors of his ship, was also shown.


Prince Edward, the future King Edward VII, was famously painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1846 wearing a child-sized sailor suit – this is generally acknowledged as the first sailor suit made for a child. Queen Victoria commissioned the suit to surprise her husband Prince Albert, who was delighted by it. The feeling was mutual with members of the social upper echelons, as children across England (and then Europe) were beginning to wear them too. Mini sailor suits as occasionwear was a style that lasted a long time, and so was far more than just a short-term trend. 


Oh Boy! Act Two: Ship Shape at The Fashion and Textiles Museum runs until 3rd March 2024.