History of the Sailor Pant

Sometimes we are drawn to certain items of clothing for their aesthetic appeal or we are unconsciously stirred by a nostalgic spirit. Often enough, the history that accompanies a garment goes unknown as well, even when a garment is considered a classic.

Folkwear’s 229 Sailor Pants pattern is a revival of an original and an enduring classic. This seaworthy pant has become an iconic design that feels fresh and new every time it it comes ashore.

This pant design is quickly recognized and associated with belonging to the navy. The history of the navy is synonymous with the uniform that represents it. Garments that endure often do so for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. This newly released Folkwear pattern happens to fall into both of these categories. It is a uniform with flair that got its start as workwear.

For a greater appreciation of the 229 Sailor Pant all you have to do is dive deeper into its history.

The origin of this sailor pant or “rig” as referred to by the Navy seamen who originally worn it, is not cemented in clothing history. Prior to the 19th century sailor uniforms among the enlisted men varied widely, not only among different ships, but on the same ship as well. The clothes the sailors wore were considered work wear and the colors and textures of the fabrics were a mismatch. The standard uniform was relegated to the officers and their suits were more closely related to the modern business suit. The United States Navy did not have a standard uniform, in the beginning of it’s history. However, as early as 1817 some sailors did wear wide leg trousers that had a bell-shaped lower leg. It is the British Royal Navy that is credited with setting the popular nautical fashion. The classic sailor’s uniform became extremely popular when first worn by five year old Bertie, the Prince of Wales, in a portrait by Winterhaller in 1846. The painting was a Christmas gift to Queen Victoria from Prince Albert. Dressing Edwardian children in sailor inspired clothing became very popular due to the Royal children and still remains so today.

Portrait of the Prince of Wales by Winterhaller 1846

There is little agreement about the evolution of bell-bottom feature of the uniform, some scholars argue that the design was simply a variation on the pantaloon and the bell-bottom design was a touch of flair which set the sailor apart from his civilian counterpart. Others claim the bell-bottom appeared for practical reasons, because the leg of the pants could be rolled up securely to free the feet and ankles from getting tangled, while working on the rigging of navy sailing ships. Another theory is that this design would allow the pant leg to be easily rolled up to prevent it from getting wet when swapping the deck. The loose bell-bottom lower leg prevented the pant from chafing the legs when wet.

The design of the sailor pant includes many buttons on the front flap, or buttoned broadfall front. The zipper was not popular on a wide scale at the turn of the century. The zippers that did exist were made of metal and would have corroded in salt air and water, which would have not be practical.  Like many historic versions, these pants also have a back laced gusset, a feature that allows pants to be pulled down more quickly for practical reasons.
Sailors also sewed their own uniforms and pants while on the ships they served. The fabrics they used were wool and sometimes denim.

The pant could also be used as a life jacket/preserver. It was not uncommon for men to be washed or blown overboard without donning a life jacket. Once in the water the pants could quickly be removed even over shoes, the pant legs then tied in a knot, and swept over the head. The inflated pant served as a life preserver. If recovery from the water was not immediate, the pant could be un-knotted and refilled with air to continue to provide flotation.
The adoption of the blue color associated with sailor pants comes from Britain’s acquisition of the West Indies and India that provided easy access to indigo. The British Royal Navy uniform had not always been consistent in color and it was the plentiful source of indigo that allowed for all uniforms to be the same color. The dye proved reliable in standing up to the rigors of constant sun exposure and was reasonably color fast. It was also inexpensive during a time when the range of color dyes were limited. Indigo is extracted from the native plant in India and grown in the east and west Indies.

Once sail power vanished in the late 19th century, bell bottoms no longer had any practical purpose. Since WWI sailors wore bell bottoms primarily as a tradition. In 1977 The British Navy replaced the bell bottom with a flares leg.

Even though the sailor pant has been altered by history, it remains an enduring reminder of how a unique and flattering design is always apropos. We hope you find inspiration through history in every Folkwear pattern you make.

Folkwear is excited to introduce the 229 Sailor Pant and we hope you get lots of complements while sporting this iconic classic.
We have a Pinterest inspiration board with vintage and modern photos that you can check out for ideas for what you could make, what fabrics and buttons to use, and how to style them.  Here are a few highlights below. 


Pinterest link

Three women wearing colorful Sailor Pants outside on a pier
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Woman sitting on a stool wearing a blue shirt and Sailor pants
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Woman wearing grey sailor pants with brown leather jacket and white shirt.
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