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The image of Britain’s Prince Louis dressed in a miniature sailor suit was one of the standout moments of the recent Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Photographed screaming with his hands pressed over his ears as fighter jets roared above the Buckingham Palace balcony, all eyes were on the 4-year-old royal heir. While his animated reaction to the day’s events made headlines, his outfit — a go-to ensemble for British royals, including his father when he was 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, varied history which has stood the test of time, and has 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 sporting this nautical-inspired accessory. Credit: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
“Nautical fashion enjoys lots of positive connotations: Of marine adventures and the romance of the sea,” Hannah Lyons, assistant curator of art at London’s National Maritime Museum, said via email. “It has an enduring appeal — it is timeless and ageless, and everyone can wear a nautical look.”
Nautical styles are both “practical but also visually appealing,” Lyons added. “I think it is this functionality combined with aesthetic appeal that makes it so inspirational to all designers — not just luxury ones.”
Royal beginnings: Queen Victoria to Empress Alexandra
When nautical fashion first started to go mainstream, Queen Victoria was one of its earliest pioneers. It began primarily with childrenswear, owing to the British monarch’s decision to commission a child-sized sailor suit for her son Prince Albert Edward in 1846.
A description of the portrait on the Royal Collection Trust’s website read: “Its display helped stimulate a new fashion for children’s sailor suits and nautical leisurewear which would last for much of the century.”
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 only a fashion statement but also an example of soft power: A stylish show of support for Britain’s naval community. It would increase in popularity in the years to come, Lyons said. “Naval styles in British fashion were used to evoke a sense of national pride and solidarity with the Royal Navy during wartime, in particular during the First and Second World Wars.”
High school girls in uniform take photos with their graduation certificates in central Tokyo. Credit: Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
In time, nautical fashion’s association with naval power would begin to shift as more international designers entered the scene.
The Breton top becomes a French navy staple — and Coco Chanel’s
Although the reason behind the exact number of stripes isn’t known, Saint James claims a popular theory is that “21 stripes (correspond) to the number of Napoleonic victories” while another is that the striking pattern was instantly visible should someone fall overboard.
Lyons explained it would grow to be “associated with the bohemian life by the sea,” bringing romance to the style especially as it spread in popularity.
Actress Audrey Hepburn in 1955. Credit: Phil Burchman/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
According to Royal Museums Greenwich, the Breton top would find international fame thanks to a couple of influential American expatriates named Gerald and Sara Murphy. While visiting American composer Cole Porter on the French Riviera in 1922, they would purchase tricot rayés for their famous friends including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, elevating the top’s profile as the trendsetters showcased them to the American public.
In France, designer Coco Chanel championed the style in the 1930s — true to her groundbreaking approach to women’s fashion, which incorporated menswear elements and pushed the boundaries. Lyons said: “Chanel transformed the striped ‘Breton’ into a bohemian look — more about the romance of the sea than its associations with the navy.”
“It helped that public figures such as James Dean and Audrey Hepburn adopted the Breton, thus increasing its popularity even further and associating it with the glamour of Hollywood,” she added.
Modern nautical styles: From the 1960s to today
Later in the 20th century, more luxury designers began to draw on nautical styles for their collections. Yves Saint Laurent took the Breton top and made it glamorous in 1966 – transforming it into a floor-length evening gown, with its iconic stripes realized in dazzling sequins.
Gigi Hadid during the Jean-Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show. Credit: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
In the exhibition catalog of “The Fashion World of Jean Paul-Gaultier,” Gaultier said of a backless 1984 piece: “I reinterpreted the sailor-striped sweater by giving it an open back, 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. Credit: Stefania M. D’Alessandro/Getty Images
Diana, Princess of Wales attends the Royal Naval College in April 1989 wearing a Catherine Walker dress and a hat by Philip Somerville. Credit: Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images
“Quite simply, nautical fashion is less concerned with 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.