A Brief History of Nautical Fashion

Ahoy, everyone! With the release of our Mariner Top, we’re feeling nautical at Charm HQ! I thought I’d walk you through some of the inspiration I pulled from in designing this month’s pattern, and a brief history of nautical fashion. 

Royal Origins

It’s said that the nautical fashion craze originated with Queen Victoria, who in 1846 commissioned a child’s sailor uniform for her four year old son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. On a trip aboard the Royal Yacht, she wrote, “​​When he appeared, the officers and sailors, who were all assembled on deck to see him, cheered, and seemed delighted." The garment was a perfect replica of the era’s naval uniform, which was immortalized with a painting by leading portrait painter Franz Winterhalter. This ignited a frenzy, and before long nautical inspiration could be found in the wardrobes of not just children, but high status women too. 


Breton Goes Mainstream

Stripes were a common theme in naval uniforms, as the contrast made for good visibility should a seaman fall overboard. In 1858, the French navy introduced the Breton shirt as a uniform, its 21 stripes a supposed nod to Napoleon’s victories against the British. In 1917, Chanel made a splash with her take on the Breton top, and soon after it became a bohemian staple, with figures like James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and more sporting stripes. 


Early 20th Century Designers

Coco Chanel was a major force in taking nautical chic. She sported her designs regularly on the French Riviera, equating the stripes with an effortlessly cool luxury in the minds of many. By the late 1920s, nautical colors had entrenched their popularity in women’s wardrobes: navy, red and white featured heavily in designs of the day. Famed designer Elsa Schiaparelli rose to prominence through a knit jumper design with clear nautical influence. 

Jumper designed and knitted by Elsa Schiaparelli. Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Nautical Goes Classic Hollywood

30’s stars Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable were seafaring sirens in hit films like Follow the Fleet and Give Me a Sailor. These films may have inspired everyday women to incorporate nautical flair into their wardrobes, particularly their beachwear. Over time, nautical fashion evolved from beachwear to a more elevated, everyday staple. Playful nautical motifs came to be replaced with more subtle homages in the form of navy blue and red color palettes. 


Sailor Fashion and the ‘50s Woman

We pored over dozens of mid-century patterns and loved the way designers melded nautical inspiration with classic '50s silhouettes. The sailor blouse evolved into the sailor dress and even the sailor playsuit. Super fitted bodices were paired with traditional sailor collars (with traditional ribbon trim!). The look was completed with a bow or tie accenting the neckline, and then a circle skirt, slim pencil skirt, or flared shorts. 


Nautical High Fashion

Nautical inspiration isn’t just for daily wear–– high end designers have also had their takes on the style. In 1962, Yves Saint-Laurent brought a peacoat to the runway –– the first ever piece in his line. Previously worn only by sailors, Saint-Laurent transformed the garment from workwear to haute couture. Vivienne Westwood, too, launched her debut with a nautical theme: her 1981 Pirate Collection was fresh and irreverent, blending punk aesthetics with nautical themes. Countless designers since have taken inspiration from the high seas, from John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and more. 

Fashion show featuring designs by Vivienne Westwood, Fall 1981. Photo credit: David Corio / Redferns

With so much brilliant inspiration to pull from, we wanted to create something worthy of a day at the beach or the runway. That’s why our Mariner Top can be styled as a full nautical tribute, or an understated, chic ensemble. We hope you love it as much as we do!