Designing on the shoulders of giants

When we set out to design our sailor suits we did so in an unapologetically backward-looking way. As the medieval Bernard of Chartres said, “we are dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants.” The heyday of the sailor suit in children’s clothing occurred between the two world wars. During that period both boys and girls dressed—or perhaps, were dressed—in sailor suits. Thus, we began by collecting and examining examples of sailor suits from this golden era of the kids’ sailor suit. Looking at the details of the older sailor suits, there was quite a bit of variation on the theme: some had button sleeve cuffs, others did not; some had braid that crossed over in the corners of the collar back and others did not; the distinctive sailor collar was constructed in several different ways; some pants were had a fall front closure, others had side buttons and yet others—those made after it was invented—had elastic. Given this variation, we also looked to the source of it all: the enlisted Navy uniform.

In fact, we referenced the enlisted uniforms of several navies: the U.S. Navy, the British Royal Navy, and the German Navy. Along the way, the humble proprietor of Chandler Small took to wearing a surplus Bundesmarine sailor’s middy as a pullover on summer mornings.

There was a fair amount of variation on the theme as we studied these military examples too. Being an American company, intent on making our kids’ sailor suits in the U.S., the aesthetic we chose is American. Thus, we included middy braid—yes, the trim is named after the garment—on both the collar and the cuff, like U.S. Navy middies and we opted to have it turn to follow the collar edge in the back like Navy uniforms, rather than have it crossed over over like many children’s sailor tops from early 20th century. The story of braid on navy middies is is a topic of its own, which deserves a blog post of its own.

Our sailor suit tops are not, however, shrunken down U.S. Navy uniforms: the construction of the neck opening and collar of our sailor middy is most similar to the German Navy top. We also kept the braid on the body of the collar and not along the lower neck opening, a detail that was on a 1920’s example that also inspired our logo.

On bottom, our pant design is also a hybrid of U.S. Navy bell bottom and vintage sailor suit pant features. As parents, we knew that the Navy’s 13 button fall-front closure would not fly with either kids or parents; however, we did track down the right mil-spec anchor buttons and included them on our kid’s sailor pants. In stead of the working fall front of the Navy uniform, we incorporated a pleat that gives the effect of the fall front, and included non-working uniform buttons to give them the right look. The result is a pant that authentically nautical and thoroughly functional.

(Photo: a 1940’s children’s sailor top, part of the Chandler Small & Co. collection.  Note the chis-crossed middy braid on the collar. Also not that this sailor top included a button in bib.  Chandler Small stuck with the Navy on this aspect of our kid’s sailor suit and gone with a ringer undershirt, like those used in the British Royal Navy and at the U.S. Naval Academy.)

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