Journal Article

What Was Uniform about the Fin-de-Siècle Sailor Suit?

Clare Rose

in Journal of Design History

Published on behalf of Design History Society

Volume 24, issue 2, pages 105-124
Published in print May 2011 | ISSN: 0952-4649
Published online May 2011 | e-ISSN: 1741-7279 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epr006
What Was Uniform about the Fin-de-Siècle Sailor Suit?

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The sailor suits widely worn by children in late-nineteenth-century Britain have been interpreted at the time, and since, as expressions of an Imperial ethos. Yet, a closer examination of the ways that these garments were produced by mass manufacturers, mediated by advertisers and fashion advisors and consumed by families makes us question this characterization. Manufacturers interpreted sailor suits not as unchanging uniforms but as fashion items responding to seasonal changes. Consumers used them to assert social identities and social distinctions, selecting from the multiple variants available. Cultural commentators described sailor suits as emulating Royal practice—but also as ‘common’ and to be avoided. A close analysis of large samples of images and texts from the period 1870–1900 reveals how these different meanings overlapped, making the fin-de-siècle sailor suit a garment that undermines many of our assumptions.

Keywords: childhood; consumption; dress; masculinity; nineteenth century; sailor suit

Journal Article.  9520 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Art ; Art Forms ; Industrial and Commercial Art ; Art Styles

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