A monthly box of sewing goodies, delivered to your door

Nautical Fashion, A History

Despite fashion being very much cyclical, there is one trend that keeps on coming back, season after season. From classic horizontal stripes to sailor collars, brass buttons to anchor prints, nautical inspired fashion trends, which evoke thoughts of fresh air, sunshine and sea, never seem to be far away.

Nautical style is classic and chic, whilst also being comfortable and natural. It’s a look that suits anyone and everyone and can also be suitable for any occasion. But where and when did nautical style enter the world of fashion? Let’s take a look.

In the mid 18th century, the first official Navy uniform was worn in England. The official colour scheme was blue and white, with gold and silver trim for officers. This also helped to distinguish between sailors and fishermen.

Fast forward to 1846, when Queen Victoria commissioned a child’s sailor uniform for her young son, Albert Edward (Prince of Wales). A portrait was commissioned and displayed at St. James’ Palace, meaning it was seen by over 100,000 members of the public. This helped the nautical style of dress to gain interest and it soon began infiltrating the world of fashion. Replicating the style of the Royal Navy was associated with status and also became a mark of solidarity during WW1. It wasn’t long before nautical inspiration was found, not just in the wardrobes of children, but in high status women too.  

But it wasn’t just the British that had an impact on nautical fashion trends. The famous striped Breton shirt originated in France. It was first worn by fishermen in Brittany and became part of the official French Navy uniform in 1858. The 21 stripes are thought to signify Napoleon’s victories over the British.

The iconic Coco Chanel took the fashion world by storm with her take on the Breton top. In 1917, Chanel began selling a jersey version of the striped top and throughout the 1920s she would frequent the French Riviera wearing striped sweaters and wide-legged trousers. This effortlessly cool look increased the popularity of the nautical style, taking it to luxurious and chic heights. It wasn’t long before famous figures like Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Brigitte Bardot were also sporting the maritime look and by the late 1920s, nautical colours of navy, red and white had entrenched their popularity in women’s wardrobes. There is even a famous Vogue cover from 1931 featuring a woman at a ship’s wheel dressed in a super-chic outfit of blue wide-legged trousers, a striped top and accessories to match – a look that wouldn’t be out of place today!

Nautical style has continued to be popular throughout the years. Movies such as ‘Give Me A Sailor’ in the 1930s inspired women to add a little nautical flair to their everyday wardrobes. The 1950s saw classic silhouettes being combined with maritime influences, such as fitted dresses having the addition of a sailor collar. High-end designers have also had their take on nautical style. Yves Saint-Laurent took a Peacoat, a garment previously worn only by sailors, and brought it to the runway, transforming it from workwear to haute couture. More recently, Vivienne Westwood blended nautical themes with punk styling with her 1981 Pirate Collection, featuring a traditional nautical colour palette, stripes and traditional imagery such as anchors.   

If you’d like to read more about the history of nautical style, ‘Nautical Chic’ by Amber Jane Butchart is the first ever book to track the influence of our seafaring past on the clothing that we love. It traces the relationship between maritime dress and fashion, through five chapters each focussing on a different profession (Officer, Sailor, Fisherman, Sportsman and Pirate). 

Why not add a little nautical chic to your me-made wardrobe with a Jennifer Lauren Gable Top in a classic cotton jersey stripe or the I Am Patterns Osiris Top and Dress where you can have some fun with some gold buttons. Paired with the Jennifer Lauren Handmade Bastion Culottes that take inspiration from 1940s sailor pants that feature a sailor-style front button opening with deep pockets intergrated into the waistline.

Written by Tamlyn @sewn_on_the_tyne