Nautical fashion: timeless, practical and visually appealing

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Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN

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.

Portraits of the 4-year-old prince in the outfit, who would become King Edward VII, would later be displayed to the public at St. James’s Palace, with the Royal Collection Trust saying more than 100,000 people would go on to view it. Lyons added that the image was then “released in miniature, enamel, printed images and later photographs”, allowing it to reach an even wider audience.

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.

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.”

It wasn’t just in Britain. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia dressed her young son Tsesarevich Alexei in the style of a photograph in 1913. And in Japan, amid a period of rapid modernization as she sought to leave behind the Meiji era , Japanese schools clung to the costumes of European sailors as a source of inspiration. for new women’s uniforms known as “seifuku” around the 1920s. While men’s school uniforms inspired by Japanese naval dress had been around since 1879, Meiji era women’s uniforms were largely inspired by traditional hakama clothing – wide leg pleated trousers, worn high on the waist.
Namba Tomoko, associate professor at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, said in a 2018 Nippon article: “Women’s school uniforms began to change in the 1920s, with Western-style clothing becoming more and more the norm. From many students at the time enthusiastically welcomed sailor suits, helping to establish the look as the standard uniform.”
High school girls in uniform take photos with their diplomas in central Tokyo.

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

Beyond British naval influences, the striped uniform of the French Navy also began to have an international impact. In 1858, the French Navy introduced the striped striped knit – otherwise known as the “marinière” or breton top – as part of the standard uniform. According to French brand Saint James, which has been creating Breton tops since 1889, a naval decree dictated that the top would have 21 white stripes and 20-21 indigo blue stripes.

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.

Beyond French naval officers, the sight of fishermen wearing what came to be known as Haut Breton would become increasingly common in Normandy and Brittany. As they sailed between France and England to peddle their wares, the item grew in popularity as French vacationers along the Cote d’Azur began to adopt the Breton top into their wardrobes.

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.

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.

Gigi Hadid at the Jean-Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2020 show. Credit: Victor Virgil/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

And Jean Paul-Gaultier, who wore Breton tops as a youth in Paris, would incorporate the stripes into his 1984 “Boy Toy” collection, sparking a love affair with “marinière” for the designer. Nautical styles would return in her 1996 “Pin-Up Boys” collection, the following year’s “Russia” and “Salon Atmosphere” collections and continue to this day with Gigi Hadid modeling a sailor hat and a bold pleated version Breton striped top at Gaultier. Spring/Summer 2020 Haute Couture show.

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.

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

In recent years, the vintage charm of nautical fashion has also been renewed with brands such as Zimmermann and Ghost reintroducing sailor collar silhouettes into their looks. Last year’s cottagecore – one of the biggest fashion trends inspired by bohemian pastoral lifestyles – also fully embraced sailor collars, adding an old-world twist to floral dresses and puff-sleeved tops. .
Nautical has also remained a mainstay in the wardrobe of the royal family, from the young Prince William to his future wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and his late mother Princess Diana. Princess Diana, in particular, preferred sailor collars – wearing one on a trip to visit the Royal Naval College in 1989.
Diana, Princess of Wales, attends the Royal Naval College in April 1989 wearing a Catherine Walker dress and hat by Philip Somerville.

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

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