So, how did the blouse of a sailor’s uniform, otherwise called a middy (as they were worn by midshipmen) become the basis of a dress recently worn by the Duchess of Cambridge? Well it actually started with the British royal family. The wearing of sailor suits by anyone besides an actual sailor probably originated with young Prince Edward in the mid 19th century. He later had his own children dressed in miniature sailor uniforms. A photograph of the children inspired a trend of dressing small boys in sailor suits – a trend that lasted well into the 20th century.
Photo is of a group of children in Finland, circa 1920 photo courtesy of Vintage Fan Attic
Around 1880, women’s sport blouses began sporting sailor type collars. This type collar was soon used on bathing suits and gymnasium uniforms as well. This was not a true middy, as it was designed to be tucked into, buttoned onto, or attached to the skirt or bloomers. Photo circa 1905.
Sometime around 1910 the sailor blouse was developed into the middy. The middy did not “blouse” over the waist; it hung straight from the shoulders to the hip. In the mid 1910s, the middy was often loosely belted, in keeping with current fashion. By 1920, the belt was gone, and was often replaced with a wide band at the hem.
An important part of the middy was the fabric used. The middy was constructed of cotton duck, like a sailor’s warm weather middy. Because of its practically, the middy quickly became standard wear for sports, gym and camp. The illustration is a 1919 ad. Paul Jones was the brand name of Morris and Company, who claimed to be the originators of the middy. The middy photographed above has a Paul Jones label.
By the late 1910s, middies were not just for active sports. They had crossed over into being fashion as well. Dresses with middy tops became popular for spectator sports. This illustration is from a 1919 Butterick Pattern Book.
The middy was worn over huge bloomers when used for sport. The bloomers were commonly made from wool, but increasingly as the 1920s progressed, they too were made from cotton duck. Above is the typical gym set: white duck middy and blue cotton bloomers.
By 1929, the middy was pretty much back in its old position of being active sportswear. Whereas in 1922 Montgomery Ward had a full page of middies, in 1929 there was just this one middy offered, and it was in the sports section instead of the clothing.
The middy has resurfaced from time to time as a fashion item. The style became popular in the form of patriotic dresses during WWII. Ladies Home Journal, 1941.
These middy and nautical inspired blouses are from the late 1950s or early 60s. During the 1970s, authentic sailor middies became very popular as we began to discover vintage. The very first piece of vintage clothing I bought to wear was a white duck sailor’s middy, bought from the Army-Navy surplus store. And in the 1980s, middy dresses reappeared, with dropped waistlines, puffed sleeves and big sailor collars. Think Laura Ashley.
I have more middy illustrations and a list of resources on my website, Fuzzylizzie.com.