One of the standout moments of recent Platinum Jubilee celebrations was the image of Britain’s Prince Louis in a miniature sailor suit. Pictured shouting with his hands pressed to his ears as fighter jets roared above the balcony of Buckingham Palace, all eyes were on the 4-year-old royal heir. While her spirited reaction to the day’s events grabbed headlines, her outfit – a must-have ensemble for the British royal family, including her father as a child – was emblematic of the tradition that marked the event. .
But it’s not just royalty who sport the iconic blue and white stripes. Nautical-inspired fashion has a long and varied history that has stood the test of time and endured as a trend loved by luxury and high street designers for decades.
A model walks the Chanel Cruise runway on May 3, 2018 in Paris, France, wearing this nautical-inspired accessory. Credit: Victor Virgil/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
“Nautical fashion has a lot of positive connotations: maritime adventures and the romance of the sea,” Hannah Lyons, assistant curator of art at the National Maritime Museum in London, said by email. “It has lasting appeal – it’s timeless and timeless, and anyone can rock a nautical look.”
Nautical styles are both “practical but also visually appealing,” Lyons added. “I think it’s this functionality combined with aesthetic appeal that makes it so inspiring for all designers – not just luxury ones.”
Royal Beginnings: From Queen Victoria to Empress Alexandra
When nautical fashion started to go mainstream, Queen Victoria was one of its first pioneers. It started primarily with children’s clothing, due to the British monarch’s decision to order a child-size sailor suit for his son Prince Albert Edward in 1846.
A description of the portrait on the Royal Collection Trust website read: “Its display helped stimulate a new fashion for sailor costumes and children’s nautical leisure wear that would last well into the century.”
Princess Mary, Prince Edward (later King Edward VIII) and Prince Albert as children, the latter two dressed in sailor suits. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
At the time, the outfit was not just a fashion statement, but also an example of soft power: a stylish show of support for the British naval community. It would grow in popularity in the years to come, Lyons said. “British fashionable naval styles were used to evoke a sense of national pride and solidarity with the Royal Navy in wartime, particularly during the First and Second World Wars.”
High school girls in uniform take photos with their diplomas in central Tokyo. Credit: Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Over time, the association of nautical fashion with naval power would begin to change as more and more international designers entered the scene.
The Breton top becomes a staple of the French navy – and that of Coco Chanel
Although the reason for the exact number of stripes is not known, Saint James claims that one popular theory is that “21 stripes (corresponds) to the number of Napoleonic victories” while another is that the striking pattern was instantly visible if someone was falling overboard.
Lyons explained that it would become “associated with bohemian seaside living”, bringing romance to the style, especially as it grew in popularity.
Actress Audrey Hepburn in 1955. Credit: Phil Burchman/Hulton Archives/Getty Images
According to the Royal Museums Greenwich, the Breton spinning top would find international fame thanks to an influential American expatriate couple named Gerald and Sara Murphy. During a visit to American composer Cole Porter on the French Riviera in 1922, they bought striped knitwear for their famous friends, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, raising the profile of the top as the designers of trends presented them to the American public.
In France, designer Coco Chanel championed the style in the 1930s, true to her revolutionary approach to women’s fashion, which incorporated masculine elements and pushed boundaries. Lyons said: “Chanel has transformed the striped ‘Breton’ into a bohemian look – more about the romanticism of the sea than its associations with the navy.”
“It helped public figures such as James Dean and Audrey Hepburn embrace the Breton, further increasing its popularity and associating it with Hollywood glamour,” she added.
Modern Nautical Styles: 1960s to Today
Later in the 20th century, more and more luxury designers began to draw inspiration from nautical styles for their collections. Yves Saint Laurent took the Breton top and made it glamorous in 1966 – transforming it into a long evening dress, with its signature stripes done in dazzling sequins.
Gigi Hadid at the Jean-Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2020 show. Credit: Victor Virgil/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
In the catalog for the exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul-Gaultier”, Gaultier said of a bare back piece from 1984: “I reinterpreted the sailor sweater by giving it an open back, which which was considered disrespectful!”
A model walks the runway at the K-Way fashion show during Milan Men’s Fashion Week 2021/2022 on January 17, 2021 in Milan, Italy. Credit: Stefania M. D’Alessandro/Getty Images
Diana, Princess of Wales, attends the Royal Naval College in April 1989 wearing a Catherine Walker dress and hat by Philip Somerville. Credit: Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images
“Quite simply, nautical fashion is less about the navy and war and now more associated with leisure, pleasure and good taste,” Lyons said.
Top image caption: Prince Louis covers his ears at a Platinum Jubilee event