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Boy’s Sailor Suit

Curated Submission
Central Canada
1900 - 1901
DIMENSIONS in centimetres
35 x 52
Materials & techniques
Wool, cotton, silk, mother of pearl; Commercially twill woven, machine-sewn
Gift of Barbara Oliver
Textile Museum of Canada T2012.22.2a
This sailor suit was made for Charles Sharp (1898–1978), the donor’s father, who is shown wearing it with fancy leather boots in a photograph from the family archive. In accordance with a long-standing European and North American tradition, the young boy is wearing a skirt, not trousers, which was customary for male children until the mid-20th century. The suit was commissioned in Ottawa, where Charles lived, and tailored from fine twill navy blue wool that, ironed more than a century ago, still keeps the perfect folds of the pleated skirt and the sailor collar. When the First World War broke out, Charles went to the front and memories of the war stayed with him until the end of his days.
The fashion of the sailor suit has its roots in the early 1800s, developing out of the informal practical outfit for deck work. During the 19th century, it evolved into a recognizable outfit typically consisting of a blue or white midshipman blouse with a large V-shaped collar at the front and a low flap at the back, bell-bottom trousers, a dark necktie, a wide-brimmed hat, and a lanyard. It was adopted as a uniform by the United States Navy in 1813, and by the British Royal Navy in 1857.
It became one of the most common fancy dresses for young boys and girls in the late 19th century, a fashion inspired by the Royal Navy suit worn by four-year-old Edward VII, Prince of Wales, on a royal visit to Ireland in 1846. Queen Victoria had it made by a tailor who made sailor suits for the British Navy. The image of Prince Edward wearing his sailor suit was preserved and popularized by artists who created paintings and engravings of the young royal. Because of their practicality, ease of construction, and loose fit, these outfits were very suitable for early mass production of clothing, which further enhanced their popularity. The fashion began to decline in 1940s and had all but disappeared by the 1950s.
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