Why the tide never goes out on nautical fashion
British fashion has a long-established a love of all things sea-worthy. The enduring appeal of nautical fashion says something about the history of our navy and its place in our culture. As a sailing nation, for hundreds of years the Royal Navy has been a symbol of national pride. Because of this, it has been extremely influential in forming modern British identity and fashion. To celebrate its place in British fashion, we’ve taken a look back at the history of maritime clothing.
A Sailor Went To Sea, Sea, Sea
Sailors spent their lives at sea, fighting the harsh elements and exploring the four corners of the globe. Yet despite sailors taking on the high seas for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the Royal Navy was given a standardised uniform. This nautical fashion came about to help naval officers cope with the demands of maritime life and create a recognisable uniform. Known for its admirable simplicity and practicality, the Royal Navy clothing was designed to keep sailors warm and to survive the test of time, while also giving the appearance of respectability. It comes as no surprise that elements of the officers’ uniforms influenced civilian fashion almost immediately, with military details and styles quickly entering civilian clothing.
Gaining Royal Favour
The popularity of sailor-inspired clothing was boosted significantly by good old Queen Victoria. Yes, one of our longest serving queens, the lady behind popularising Christmas trees in England and wearing white on your wedding day, helped to put naval clothing on the catwalk. In 1846, Queen Vicky dressed her eldest son Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, in a specially commissioned miniature sailor’s suit. By dressing up her son as an adorable little sailor, Queen Victoria launched a trend for sailor suits among the gentry.
This began the trend of nautical inspired clothes being seen as a mark of status, respectability and damn good style sense. It’s a perception that still survives today – sailor suits are highly popular childrenswear, plus naval clothing and detailing often making everyday outfits that bit more stylised. Even Prince George has been kitted out in a sailor-themed outfit.
The Royal Navy has played an important role since its creation in defending British shores and exploring uncharted waters. Because of this, over the years nautical inpirted clothing styles were adopted in British fashion to show a sense of national pride and solidarity during wartimes. This was particularly popular during the First and Second World Wars when military details like stripes were added to women's fashion while the men were away on the front lines. Structured, military-like outfits were adopted for jobs that required a uniform or trousers. Military-themed coats became very popular because they were both fashionable and useful. This period saw a move towards useful yet stylised clothing that fit in with the demands of modern life.
Subversion and Rebellion
Fashion is all about taking existing trends and making them anew. Naval fashion has survived because it has been reworked and refashioned over the years. It all began with Coco Chanel – along with pearls and establishing black the timeless staple colour it is today, Chanel brought naval clothing to the fashion world. Frequently sporting a striped sweater and flared bell-bottom trousers on the French Riviera, Chanel glamorised nautical inspired clothing. Yves Saint-Laurent followed suit in 1962, bringing the naval collar and reefer jacket to the catwalk.
By the 1970s, the glam rock movement had hit British high streets. Glamorous, playful styles using luxurious fabrics were mixed with vintage naval clothing to create a ‘New Romantic’ look. Think Adam Ant’s use of historical military and naval clothing with loose-fitting shirts and flamboyant makeup. Suddenly nautical inspired clothes could be used to create less traditional looks by integrating pieces into a contemporary wardrobe.
Today, nearly everyone has some nautical clothing in their closets. From a stripy T-shirt to your reliable winter peacoat, your retro flares to fashionable caps, you are bound to have a little deckhand-inspired attire to your name. And it’s all thanks to those brave sailors who the first naval uniform was created for.
Key Staples of A Naval Wardrobe
Now that you understand the history of nautical fashion, if you haven’t got a few naval-themed pieces already, it's high tide...we mean high time that you embrace some ship-shape staples. Although there is plenty of marine-inspired clothes out there, there is a handful of enduring essentials that have endured. These pieces give any outfit a healthy dose of classic nautical style and can be versatile enough to work with any style:
The Royal Navy
There is a reason that our favourite shade of dark blue has been given the name ‘navy’. It comes from the shade of blue that navy officers have been wearing since the 18th century. This fetching shade was used because of the plentiful supply of indigo – a plant from which a dark blue dye was extracted – which was imported in vast quantities from India. Used because of its availability, ‘navy’ blue quickly became the signature colour of the Royal Navy.
This is probably the easiest nautical fashion element to add to your existing wardrobe, as navy clothing is easy to come by and automatically adds a level of respectability and style to your look.
When you think naval fashion, you automatically picture someone wearing a peacoat. The iconic outerwear coat, with its double-breasted front and classic navy colour, the peacoat has been a popular staple in nautical clothing for generations.
Sported by sailors as early as 1720, by the Victorian era the coat had come to be what it is known as today – a melton wool, double-breasted overcoat that is both fashionable and practical. Although over the years the peacoat has become lighter and the traditional brass buttons have often been swapped for plastic, the core look has survived. From vintage styles to quirky adaptations, there are plenty of peacoats out there to choose from.
The Bridge Coat
The big brother to the peacoat, the bridge coat was originally the officer jacket to distinguish between the sailors and their superiors. Longer than a peacoat, with two patch pockets on the side as well as epaulettes on the shoulders to mark rank, the bridge coat oozes respectability and classic style. It is a great coat for more formal, dressed up occasions than the pea coat, while still having those timeless military details. Favoured by the likes of Winston Churchill, the bridge coat immediately stylises your outwear while also keeping you safe and warm from the harshest of elements.
The Duffle Coat
Named from the town in Belgium where its woollen fabric was originally produced, the duffle coat was a cosy overcoat that was originally issued to sailors during the first world war. Designed to be large so that it could be easily thrown over a uniform, this coat is styled as an oversized piece of outerwear to throw over on those cold winter days.
After the war when clothing was scarce and the surplus duffle coats were plentiful, they quickly became a popular addition to British fashion on land. Much like the nautical inspired clothing of 1970s pop stars, in the 1960s duffle coats became the uniform of artsy students and bohemians.
The Breton shirt
The Breton shirt is a known French innovation. Created in 1853 for the French navy based in Brittany, the original striped woven shirt was made with a wide boat neck, 3/4 length sleeves and 21 navy stripes (supposedly based on the 21 battles won by Napoleon). These French Breton shirts were either made from a heavy cotton jersey or wool. They became so popular that the local Breton fishermen took up the style, followed by other European navies.
The genius that was Coco Chanel brought the Breton shirt to the fashion world, creating a soft cotton, Breton shirt for her 1917 collection, sparking a craze for such shirts. This classic shirt has been a wardrobe staple ever since, branching out into different shirt types, colours and variations to keep it modern. But the authentic Breton shirt still remains as popular as when it first came to our high streets.
Bell-bottom trousers, flares, whatever you want to call them, these trousers are prime wardrobe staples. Wider from the knees downwards, these fashionable trousers have been around since the early 19th century. Introduced for deckhands so that they could roll up their trousers to wash the deck and remove them quickly when abandoning ship or if they were cast overboard, bell-bottom trousers did not enter the fashion scene until the 1920s. Until then they were simply functional naval trousers worn only by sailors and naval officers. Chanel innovated these naval trousers to create her wide-legged trousers, or ‘yachting pants’, that focused on making fashion more comfortable for women.
In a move towards inexpensive, casual fashion that broke away from old conventions, the rebellious youth of the ‘60s raided second-hand stores and (in America) military surplus stores where old military clothing was in abundance. Old military clothing was embraced and adjusted to create new fashion trends and personalised apparel. Bell-bottoms quickly became a popular item, particularly because of their more adaptable structure and unisex appeal at a time when gendered fashion was being challenged. In recent years, flared trousers have come back with a vengeance, now designed in a variety of fabrics, colours and patterns. But you can’t beat the classic, navy flared trousers that started it all.
Of course, there are hundreds of nautical inspired clothes that go beyond these staples. It is worth having a few pieces or accessories integrated into your wardrobe to insert a little military smartness and detailing to your outfit. From brass buttons to shoulder pads, military jackets to lace up boots, there are endless options to choose from. But for classic nautical inspired clothes, these pieces are great places to start.
Classic styles are hard to beat and never go out of fashion. At Archie Foal, we use modern innovations and timeless designs to create our collection of British-made, luxury clothing inspired by the best of British fashion. Made to last, our clothes use the best quality fabrics to ensure that your style lasts a lifetime – not just a season.