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Why nautical fashion isn't just for sailors: 27 ship-shape looks through time

Published 0936 GMT (1736 HKT) April 23, 2015
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From sailor suits to pirate accessories, our love affair with nautical fashion has weathered many a storm. We take a look back at some of history's most enduring designs -- and their origins in mariner work wear.
Here, actress Marianne Brauns leaps over a breakwater on the beach, wearing a structured blue swimsuit with white trim, in 1950.
Carl Sutton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/File
Deckhands don't come much more glamorous than actress Audrey Hepburn, pictured in 1955.
Stripes have a long tradition in nautical fashion, dating back to 19th century French fisherman, and later adopted by the French navy, explains fashion historian Amber Butchart in her new book "Nautical Chic."
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Butchart's book looks at the history of nautical fashion, beginning its journey with the fabulous ship-shaped headpieces of the late 18th century.
"There's one in particular that was worn by the women of Paris to celebrate a battle the French won against the British," explained Butchart.
"So in some cases you've got these momentous historical events behind these fashions."
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/Bibliotheque nationale de France
French fashion designer Coco Chanel, pictured here in wide trouser and sailor-style cap, borrowed styles from traditional mariner professions.
"Chanel was such a pioneer -- she took inspiration from fishermens' work wear," explained Butchart.
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
From navy workers, to catwalk models, and even children, one of the most enduring -- and versatile -- nautical designs is the sailor suit.
"There was a very famous painted portrait of Britain's Queen Victoria's son dressed in a sailor's suit that was made for him by the tailor of the Royal Yacht," explained Butchart.
"So a couple of decades after that you start to see the sailor suit becoming a really popular item for children's wear and it's still something that's worn around the world. You might see it in Japanese school uniforms, or page boys at Christian weddings."
Here, a woman models a sailor suit blouse in the mid-1950s.
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"The sailor suit becomes this really playful item -- the collar especially. And that's why it's so enduring," said Butchart.
"It has links to innocence of childhood."
There is certainly a playful spirit to these two women, posing on the bow of a boat in 1925.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/File
American actress Mary Tyler Moore opts for a more demure full-length dress with nautical collar, in this 1974 image. Hulton Archive/Getty Images/File
While this lady dresses up a velvet sailor-style dress and jacket with a fur stole, in 1925. Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images/File
The sailor suit is re-imagined as swim wear in this 1923 image of a girl playing a banjo on the beach. General Photographic Agency/Getty Images/File
"Not just for children, the sailor suit crossed into women's wear, especially at the beach," said Butchart.
"So you've got this big association with seaside holidays, with leisure time, with being by the sea, with that sort of carefree attitude that goes with being on holiday."
"The Victorian sailor was quite a sexualized, very physical, very virile figure," said Butchart.
"And this really laid the groundwork for the sailor becoming this homoerotic icon in the 20th century."
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/MPI/getty Images/File
Nautical work wear has had a huge influence on catwalk fashion, and Butchart's book is broken up into the professions of officer, sailor, fisherman, sportsman, and pirate.
Here, pirate-inspired parrots and eye patches make a comeback in designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac's 2010 summer collection.
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/Anthea Simms
The golden age of piracy might have been the 17th century, but hundreds of years later French designer Jean Paul Gaultier brings the buccaneer look back to catwalk, as seen in his 2008 collection.
"The pirate is such a mythologized character now," explained Butchart.
"We really know the pirate from figures like Captain Hook, or Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. But I've been interested in peeling back the layers a bit, having a look at why we think pirates dress the way they do, and seeing how much of that is actually historical."
Courtsey Thames & Hudson/Anthea Simms
British models in the 1960s sport a "Captain Kid" pirate hat and "Lord Jim" poplin nautical cap. Keystone/Getty Images/File
What is the enduring appeal of nautical fashion? Butchart puts it down to the styles themselves being so "fresh."
"They're often quite spring-like, with white bell bottom trousers, or brass buttons, and it's nice to start wearing those sorts of styles after winter. It welcomes the sun."
Here, a man in the 1970s shows off his striped shirt and wide trousers -- and impressive sideburns.
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The stripes needn't always be blue and white though, as this lady in red shows in the 1960s.
"From the 19th century we tend to associate a lot of sailor styles with holidaying by the beach, so there's that seaside, holiday, sun, element," said Butchart.
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/Philippe Pottier
Decades after Chanel first sported the nautical look, model Claudia Schiffer wears a blue and white striped top at the Chanel show, during Paris Fashion Week in 2010. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images/File
Stripes and anchors also feature on the catwalk of Dolce and Gabbana's spring/summer collection in Milan, in 2009.
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/Anthea Simms
"It's such a perennial trend -- every spring catwalk there's some kind of nautical story," said Butchart.
"I think it's because maritime history is such a big part of our history, so the clothing itself has lots of different meanings."
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"'The Fisherman's' occupational clothing has given rise to chic classics via the avant-garde's bohemian embrace of Riviera lifestyle in the 1920s," says Butchart's book.
"Blue-and-white stripes became the choice of style arbiters as diverse as Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Andy Warhol."


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The book continues its exploration of different maritime professions, with the officer.
"From the birth of naval uniform in the 18th century to the lavish embellishment of McQueen and Givenchy, 'Officer' style plays with ideas of power, wealth and spectacular adornment," says Butchart.
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/Julie Ribault
"The officer look starts in the mid-18th century with the British naval uniform and it's a lot more about Savile Row tailoring houses," explained Butchart.
"So it's a lot more stricter, smarter, very much focused on the idea of spectacular power dress, so things like gold braiding -- these visual markers of power."
Here, Officer-style gold braiding featured in British designer Alexander McQueen's 1996 autumn/winter collection.
Courtesy Thames & Hudson/Anthea Simms
We salute model Heidi Klum's captain's cap (notice the VS logo stands for "Victoria's Secret"), pictured on board a yacht in 2008. Timothy. A Clary/Getty Images/File
A more laid-back seafaring look is "the sportsman." Think John F. Kennedy at the helm of a yacht, wearing boat shoes and with the wind in his hair.
"'The Sportsman' is predominantly about yachting and that east coast Americana aspirational lifestyle, which is now seen in brands like Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger," said Butchart.
"It's very much about that preppy, affluent, exclusive yacht club look."
Designer Tommy Hilfiger's anchor-pattern jumper is pictured here on a model in 2007.
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American actress and model Raquel Welch sports flat cap and smart shirt and trousers while rowing on London's Serpentine, in 1969. Dove/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/File
A model shows off casual sailing wear in 1957.
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"A lot of nautical looks are from men's items that have crossed over into women's wear," said Butchart.
"But then there are also unisex items like the peacoat, dufflecoat, and stripes."
Male or female, who isn't on board with these 1968 knitted sweaters adorned with boats?
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