Sailor Outfits and Lesbian Culture, 1920s-1930s

The sailor aesthetic is irrevocably intertwined with queer culture. The job description of “sailor” has a straggeringly gay history and the aesthetic has been used time and time again in gay fashion, media, music and more; think Tom of Finland or Pierre et Gilles. I use the word “gay” because, more often than not, these representations are of gay or otherwise male-loving men. The sailor aesthetic, at least in pop-culture, is hardly associated with lesbians at all. Sailor Uranus and Neptune (the lesbian couple from 1990s manga and anime Sailor Moon) are the closest example – but in their case, the sailor aesthetic is associated with their relationship through a more general use of sailor-inspired outfits. 

It is hardly surprising that this is how the sailor aesthetic has come to be represented. The Merseyside Maritime Museum, for an exhibition titled ‘Hello Sailor!’, explains that “the sea was the gateway to freedom abroad. Seafaring culture has contributed to the development of gay culture worldwide, as seafarers were conduits for information about different practices and attitudes around the world.”1 The museum’s website also notes that “Gay women were less evident on board ship and were more discreet”.2 It is also true that hardly any women would have been sailors or on board ships at all until more recently in sailing history.

Fig. 1: Unknown woman in sailor wear, c.1930s. Via eBay user photofella, accessed 2 Dec. 2021.

Despite all this, there was a moment in time a century ago when lesbians took sailor outfits to heart. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a fad for sailor-inspired clothing that swept through queer culture, especially but not limited to upper-class parties in London and Paris attended by those known as the ‘Bright Young People’. Lesbians, especially, took the trend to heart – though for many of the Bright Young People sexuality was a fluid, exciting thing. Not all of the people who I will mention might have embraced the label “lesbian” in the terms that we consider it today, but all of them will have either used it at least for a time or spent time surrounded by lesbian culture (at lesbian clubs, etc.). Throughout this post, I am building upon the research of Andrew Stephenson in his fantastic 2016 article ‘’Our jolly marin wear’: The queer fashionability of the sailor uniform in interwar France and Britain’.3 However, while Stephenson’s research focuses on sailor-inspired fashion within interwar queer culture, I am linking the phenomenon of sailor style to a broader language of lesbian fashion, in the 1920s and beyond. 

So, who were these lesbians? Mostly, sailor outfits were being worn in certain circles. Though some sailor-inspired fashion was already present in the couture realm (Chanel had released a nautical-inspired collection before the 1920s even hit), when they were taken up by holidaying queer groups, worn at parties or in lesbian clubs there was nothing subtle or even particularly fashionable about it. These outfits were being worn, in part, for their outlandishness. Though related to mainstream fashion, they lived a separate life on queer bodies, much like other lesbian clothing codes at the time (see the monocle). Unlike clothing or accessories that worked as codes for lesbian sexuality, however, the sailor uniform was a lot more fun and a lot less intentional. 

Barbara Ker-Seymer was a member of the Bright Young People and a photographer. She may have first been introduced to the possibilities of sailor-inspired fashion in 1927 upon receiving a letter from gay English painter, Edward Burra, who was holidaying in the South of France. Burra, along with his friends, had taken up the dress of the sailors that they so often saw – and admired – on their travels. Stephenson, in ‘’Our jolly marin wear’’ describes this:

The inexpensive blue and white striped sailors’ vests, bell bottom trousers and red pompom berets, no doubt resonant of the adventurous sailor’s masculine appeal and his infamous sexual antics, were used to spice up what had become the standard day wear of Burra and his friends on the Mediterranean coast.4

Fig. 2: ‘Photograph Album, Toulon’, Page 2: “Sophie, Barbara and Marty on Princess Murats Yacht”. August 1931. Tate Archive, the Tate. Presented by Barbara Roett in 1997. Tate.org.uk. 

In 1931, Ker-Seymer accompanied Burra abroad, this time to the port town of Toulon. On this trip, Barbara, among the rest of the queer holidaying circle, donned sailor wear. Some photographs can be seen in one of Barbara’s many albums, a page of which is included above – Barbara is on board a yacht, dressed in sailor wear, alongside her then-lover, Marty (Margaret) Mann and costume designer Sophie Fedorovitch. 

The holiday in Toulon was far from the first time that Barbara had worn a sailor-inspired outfit – nor the first time she had done so in lesbian company. Barbara was one of the Bright Young People, after all, and a key tenet of the group was parties. One particular party, hosted in 1929 by Barbara’s one-time lover and photography mentor, lesbian aristocrat Olivia Wyndham, had a sailor theme. It’s gone down in history – quite literally – as the “Sailor Party.”5 A photograph from this party can be seen below, with Barbara, mislabelled in the caption as “Miss K. Seymour”, standing at the front in full sailor-wear. 

Though men (largely queer themselves) attended these parties and indeed outnumber women in photographs such as that below, Olivia Wyndham’s 1920s parties were a haven for the rich and bohemian lesbians of London, a chance to mingle and dress as they pleased (and drink or consume drugs on the side). The sailor outfit, with its queer associations, held a particuarly compelling charm for these lesbians. In Stephenson’s article, he writes that “fashionable young lesbian and bisexual women clearly recognised and exploited its appeal.”6 Perhaps we could consider its appeals, plural: a claim to queer history, even if it was that of male sailors who found sexual freedom on the ocean; a removal of the sailor outfit from its association with the Navy and war, which is contextually understandable in the aftermath of World War One; the sense of gender freedom that women could find in wearing trousers, since at this time trousers were only really acceptable dress for women doing sports.

Fig. 3: ‘The “Bright Young People” Being “Bright”’. Barbara Ker-Seymer, Mrs Dennis Pelly (née Elizabeth Ponsonby) and Hugh Wade, among others, at the ‘Sailor Party’ hosted by Olivia Wyndham and Marjorie Firminger. Chelsea, London, 1929. From The Bystander, 30th Oct. 1929. Copyright Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library.

The playful reframing of gender and sexual roles through sailor wear held unique meaning when the attire was worn on lesbian bodies. Of course, it was not necessarily done with this in mind – costumes were an integral part of the Bright Young People’s party scene and their primary motivation was entertainment. Consider, however, that sailor uniforms were mostly worn by men; they had become almost emblematic of masculinity, with young boys’ versions becoming popular in the latter half of the 19th century, particularly for portraits.7 This was, allegedly, one of the reasons why advertisers of the 1950s chose blue as the colour representative of boyhood. Despite this, sailor outfits did find their way into girls’ fashion, though mostly in the form of dresses.8  

A sailor outfit worn by a lesbian was at once an engagement with the 20s culture of costumes and a playful destablilisation of gendered dress. Lesbians, so often existing in the no man’s land of womanhood-sans-heterosexuality, have a history of using male clothing in creative ways. The interwar period was a high point for this. There is the sailor outfit, yes, which displaces Naval clothing into the setting of a roaring lesbian-filled party, but it is not alone: the monocle was once a status symbol for aristocratic men and yet in the 1920s became a must-have for a wealthy modern woman and even moreso for wealthy modern lesbians. The rest of the modernist women’s fashion landscape of the 20s was similar: high collars and tailored jackets, short haircuts and waistcoats. Sailor uniforms were another aspect of this phenomenon, or perhaps its drunk and giggling alter-ego. 

On the topic of drunk and giggling, I now turn to the nightclubs of Paris. Sailor wear, for all its camp appeal, was not confined to the fancy flats of London or the various coastal towns that their residents visited. Three years before Wyndham’s sailor party, there was a sailor themed masquerade ball, held at the Moulin de la Galette in Paris in 1926. One of its attendees was a woman named Suzy Solidor. 

Fig. 4: Suzy Solidor (center right, smiling) at the sailor-themed masquerade ball held at the Moulin de la Galette, Paris, 23 June 1926. Photograph by Studio D. Wasserman. Lot 289, auction.fr, 17 Dec. 2013. Accessed 6 Dec. 2021. 

Suzy Solidor was a French chanteuse – a singer and performer. In the 1930s she opened her own nightclub, where she regularly performed, called La Vie Parisienne. She was a lesbian, and during her life held the unoffical title of ‘the most painted woman in the world’. The captured sailor masquerade from 1926 is a wonder and a joy to behold, but it only marks the beginning of Solidor’s fascination with sailor wear: In an article for the BBC, Holly Williams describes how Solidor “liked to sing saucy sea shanties, and her paintings often depict her in a nautical setting: on the prow of a boat, as a mermaid, or a buccaneering captain.”9 In Stephenson’s ‘’Our jolly marin wear’’, he describes that “Solidor’s cross dressing stage persona keenly exploited the sailor’s lusty reputation for different erotic ends and gained her the reputation of being ‘The Madonna of the sailors’.”10 Solidor was taking the lesbian fascination with sailor style to the stage and making it public. Yes, it was visible before Solidor, with photographs of costumed Bright Young People displayed in national newspapers, but at least in the queer circles of upper-class Europe it retained an element of exclusivity. When it took to the clubs, it became entertainment for others. This was not unanimous, with sailor-styled lesbians appearing in photographs from Le Monocle, which was a lesbian club and therefore not exactly public. However, it is also true that by the 1930s, Riviera styling – sailor wear reinvented – had hit mainstream fashion.11

The narrative seems simple: the bored queer people of the European elite, along with their less elite bohemian friends, fell in love with the sailor aesthetic. They hosted parties where outfits inspired by the look could be worn and dressed in the style on holiday as a fun change; a thrill or a flight of fancy. Lesbians, noticing the subversive potential of the look, took it to heart. It spread to the clubs and, perhaps, the bedroom. It was a moment, a trend, another “what if?” in the 1920s. 

Of course, this is not the whole story, but only the loudest one. The photograph below is of Mabel Hampton, a lesbian who I write about frequently – she was a co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archive and as such the details of her life have been wonderfully preserved. The photograph was taken in New York in 1919, while Mabel was working as a performer with an all-Black female troupe at Coney Island. She’s wearing a shirt or (more likely) a dress in the sailor style. Though Mabel was interviewed for a series of oral history tapes in the 1970s and 80s and often speaks about clothing, I have not come across any mentions of sailor outfits within them. Nonetheless, she is undoubtedly wearing one in the photograph below. As she was a performer, it is possible that this was an actual costume from a performance. However, it’s not impossible that Mabel had discovered what other lesbians across the world had also found out: that sailor outfits had the potential to affirm a lesbian identity. Hugh Ryan, author of When Brooklyn was Queer, has made the point that Brooklyn’s waterfront was brimming with queer communities at this time, whether made up of performers like Mabel, sex workers or sailors.12 Mabel would not have needed the beaches of Toulon to be introduced to the possibilities of the sailor look, and I doubt that she was the only lesbian in the city – or the country, or anywhere outside of the wealthy circles of Paris and London – to wear it.

Fig. 5: Mabel Hampton, 1919. New York. Black & white photograph. The Lesbian Herstory Archive, Mabel Hampton Collection, New York City, USA. The Lesbian Herstory Archive Educational Foundation. 

The sailor look may just be another trend to add to the incredible list of interwar lesbian fashions, but it holds a unique place. It is an ensemble, unlike so many other passing lesbian fashions or symbols like monocles, violets, or pinky rings (each of which I have written about previously, if you’re curious). It is also, arguably, the most fun. I doubt that any lesbians who dressed in the style were doing so as a true, authentic expression of their self. It was instead perhaps a kind of affiliation; not a uniform, though of course sailor outfits were uniforms to begin with, but a wink or a nudge, an ode to the queer possibilities that emerged on the sea and a hope for them to spill into the nightlife of the city. The sailor look was a salty taste of freedom in an interwar world that was not yet ready for liberation. 

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter or support me on Patreon.

Endnotes

1: Merseyside Maritime Museum, ‘Hello Sailor!’, National Museums Liverpool, [n.d.] liverpoolmuseums.org.uk

2: Merseyside Maritime Museum, ‘Hello Sailor!’.

3: Andrew Stephenson, ‘’Our jolly marin wear’: The queer fashionability of the sailor uniform in interwar France and Britain’, Fashion, Style & Popular Culture 3.2 (2016): 157-172.

4: Stephenson, ‘’Our jolly marin wear’’, 1. 

5: D.J. Taylor, Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940 (UK: Random House, 2010).

6: Stephenson, ‘’Our jolly marin wear’’, 9.

7: Clare Rose, ‘What was Uniform about the Fin-de-Siécle Sailor Suit’, Journal of Design History 24.2 (2011): 108.

8: Rose, ‘What was Uniform about the Fin-de-Siécle Sailor Suit’, 118-119.

9: Holly Williams, ‘The ‘most painted woman in the world’’, BBC Culture, 13 Nov. 2017. bbc.com. 

10: Stephenson, ‘’Our jolly marin wear’’, 6.

11: Stephenson, ‘’Our jolly marin wear’’, 10.

12: Hugh Ryan, ‘On The Queer Waterfront’, 2019. hughryan.org

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