Sunday, 23 March 2008

Sailor & sport suits for children in the late 1890s and early 1900s

I recently received this engaging cabinet card portrait of a young boy from fellow South Derbyshire researcher Hilary Linnington. Hilary told me that she doesn't have a definite identification of this boy, and wondered if I might be able to provide a date, which could help her pinpoint which child in which branch of the family it might be.

Image © & courtesy of Hilary Linnington

The photographer George Vaughan Sankey (1842-1912) operated a studio at premises in Woodville, Swadlincote and Church Gresley between 1881 and his death in 1912. Unfortunately, I don't have enough of a handle on either the photographer's movements or the changes in card mount designs to be able to infer a date this way.

I wondered, therefore, whether an examination of the boy's clothing might help to some extent. Although I am not very knowledgeable about childrens' clothing, I spent some time browsing the pictures in Joanne Olian's book, "Children's Fashions 1860-1912 : 1,065 Costume Designs from 'La Mode Illustrée'" (1994, Dover Publications, ISBN 0 486 27615 5). Although the sailor suit as a choice for both girls' and boys' clothing underwent numerous revivals in popularity from the 1860s until at least the early 1900s, this particular version appears to match most closely an outfit which appeared in "Magasins du Louvre" in 1896, as shown below.

Image © & courtesy of Children's Fashions 1860-1912 by Joanne Olian
Sailor suit, 1896
from Children's Fashions 1860-1912

I suspect that it may have taken a year or two for this fashion to filter through the smaller towns of the rural English Midlands, and based on clothing alone I would therefore tentatively date it to somewhere between 1898 and 1901.


I note also that the item of furniture on which the boy is seated - I hesitate to call it a table, because it is almost certainly a piece designed especially for use as a studio prop - is one which appeared in another of Sankey's portraits, which I originally dated at c. 1892-1895, but which on further reflection I think may have been taken some fifteen years later. The costumes shown below, taken from the same source as those shown above, are described as sport or travel suits for 12 to 15 year-old boys, and dated 1910. The picture above has a distinctly Edwardian, rather than Victorian, feel to it, both in the design on the reverse of the card mount and the cut of clothing.

Image © & courtesy of Children's Fashions 1860-1912 by Joanne Olian Image © & courtesy of Children's Fashions 1860-1912 by Joanne Olian
Sport or travel suits for 12 to 15 year-old boys, 1912
from Children's Fashions 1860-1912

Although the photographer could have used the same studio props for many years, perhaps the existence of this same item in both portraits by Sankey suggests a slightly later date for the first, i.e. shortly after the turn of the century? I then found a cheviot suit design from 1905, pictured below, which shows many similarities with that worn by the boy in Hilary's photograph, particularly in the waistcoat. This would tend to support a slightly later date of c.1905-1910.

Image © & courtesy of Children's Fashions 1860-1912 by Joanne Olian
Cheviot suit, 1905
from Children's Fashions 1860-1912

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