Friday, January 4, 2019

Matching Sailor Suits for the Gibson Cousins

Henry Freeman Allen, c.1918
Gibson House Museum (2006.18.20)

Until the end of the nineteenth century, most American children were dressed like miniature adults. Prior to age three, boys and girls alike wore “dresses,” or long shifts that were simple to get on and off and easy to launder. At about three or four, girls began wearing more elaborate dresses, like their mothers, and boys were “breeched,” or put into pants, like their fathers. 

Beginning in the 1860s and 1870s, however, specific clothing for children became popular. And one of the most popular, and enduring, outfits for young boys was the sailor suit. Queen Victoria dressed the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in a custom-made sailor suit in 1846, modeled on a real Royal Navy uniform. The prince’s portrait was painted in this outfit and it set off a craze for sailor suits that would last into the twentieth century. 

Henry Freeman Allen, 1923
Gibson House Museum (2006.18.32)
The Gibsons were not immune to this popular style of dress. The Museum owns two sailor suits, one navy and one white, which belonged to cousins Henry Allen, the son of Mary Ethel Gibson Allen, and Warren Winslow, the son of Rosamond Gibson Winslow. The cousins were quite close, and it’s easy to imagine them scampering through the house in their matching outfits while sisters Rosamond and Mary Ethel came by to visit with their mother.

The sailor suit may have been a popular choice because the central pieces—a middy blouse and long pants—were easy to wear and relatively comfortable for children’s play. That’s in contrast to some of the other popular clothing for young boys at this time period. Fauntleroy suits, inspired by the 1885 novel Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett, included matching velvet suit jacket and pants and a shirt with an elaborate ruffled collar.

Samuel Hammond IV, 1904
Image courtesy Sam Duncan
Scottish Highland costumes, again popularized by Queen Victoria and her children, were modeled on traditional Scottish dress and included a kilt, waistcoat, jacket, plaid, and cap (and often matching socks and capes, as well). The Scottish suit on display at the Museum was loaned by Sam Duncan, Gibson House Museum Board President, and was worn by many generations of the Hammond and Duncan families.

Both Fauntleroy suits and Scottish costumes would have been worn in more formal settings. The sailor suit, a more casual look and easier to reproduce, remained popular well into the twentieth century, for both girls and boys of all social classes.

The sailor suits and Scottish costume will be on display at the Gibson House Museum through February 25, 2019. Visit the Gibson House Museum website to plan your visit!

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more:
·         Boy's Sailor Suit, Narrative Threads, The Textile Museum of Canada