Little boys in sailor suits mean Easter is coming.
They herald the season as reliably as sunny yellow jonquils poking through cold soil and wicker baskets loaded with pastel eggs. Every spring, Kitty Jones photographs fleets of baby naval enlistees -- boys decked out in the little sailor suits that have become synonymous with Easter fashion.
Jones, a portrait studio manager at a J.C. Penney store in Raleigh, N.C., estimates that her studio has photographed 20 to 30 little sailors so far this season.
"Nine times out of 10, Grandma is involved in the Easter picture, and Grandmas buy this kind of outfit," she says.
Grandmas aren't the only ones. Since the mid-1800s, adults have held fast to the tradition of dressing their little boys -- and sometimes girls -- in sailor-inspired get-ups.
Credit the Victorians and their gleeful pride in the Royal Navy for starting the trend. In her book, "History of Children's Clothing," author Elizabeth Ewing writes that artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1846 painted a portrait of the 5-year-old Prince of Wales dressed in a miniature sailor suit, complete with wide leg pants, neckerchief and cap. A Bond Street tailor created the first sailor suit specifically for the prince, according to Ewing.
The portrait captured a national sentiment, and a trend was born. Then the look caught on, filtering down to the hoi polloi, throughout Europe, to Russia, and eventually across the Atlantic to America, where today church pews on spring mornings are often dotted with little sailors.
Sandra Markus, a former children's wear designer and assistant professor at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, thinks the sight of a toddler sailor conjures reassuring notions in an uncertain world. The look seems to say that as long as little boys aspire to traditionally masculine roles of power and protection -- and look cute doing it -- things can't be too off-track, can they?
"It's tradition, a sense of what boys are supposed to be and how the world's supposed to be," Markus says.
At Pattywhacks children's clothing store in Cary, N.C., sailor suits are a staple.
"That one trend does seem to remain constant. It's such a simple, clean look. It satisfies the moms and the dads," says co-owner Melissa Sigmon. "All the best children's manufacturers offer them."
Pennsylvania-based Katie Co. Inc. is one of them. The company's boys line, dubbed Gordon and Co., will sell between 4,000 and 5,000 sailor suits this year.
"It's a look we've been doing for 10 years. It's our bread-and-butter," says company co-owner Bob Albin. The company sells primarily to specialty shops and to the Neiman Marcus department store. A whopping 60 percent of the company's sailor suit sales are in the Atlanta and Dallas markets. "Our look is really strong in the South, so we tailor it to them," Albin says.
But when it comes to design, not much tailoring has taken place over the years. The company makes short and long-leg versions and coordinating sailor dresses for girls. In winter they use a corduroy that's warm enough for the North and cool enough for the South.
The sailor suit's tie to Easter is a little more mysterious. There's no direct link between the Navy -- any navy -- and the biggest holiday on the Christian calendar. The suit's role as Easter fashion and prevalence in the spring may just be a seasonal coincidence.
Anna Russell, of Raleigh, N.C., has already purchased three sailor suits for her son, Andrew, 16 months. Andrew received his first suit at 3 months, another at 9 months and a new one for Easter.
"It's classic," said Russell, who hails from England where she says sailor suits are still very popular.
Parents tend to put boys from newborns up to about age 4 in the suits, said Bridget Collins, district manager for the Triangle's five Children's Place shops.
"It's a little too juvenile for boys past 4," Collins said. "They have an opportunity to say, 'No,' at that point."