Michael Kors Collection

Hello sailor suit

Hannah Betts buccaneers into spring in nautical style


When people go on about the horror of January, one wonders whether they have can ever have endured a February, with its air of prevailing uselessness and utterly dispiriting torpor. Well, now, at long last, it is March, and that can only mean one thing: the brisk new-broomishness of sailor style.

Fashion always sprouts a crop of nautical garb to ease us from winter into summer. Rich women require cruise wear to equip themselves for a life of permanent holidaying. Even for we civilians, there is great solace in its sartorial new leaf, for the first sighting of a matelot stripe carries the very scent of spring.

And, damn it, we Brits wear it well, for ours is an island nation and a touch of the jolly Jack Tar accentuates our stiff upper lips. Queen Victoria pioneered the infant nautical guise when she had a miniature sailor suit designed for her son Albert, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to wear aboard the royal yacht. Anybody who was anybody followed suit.

“Pink is the navy blue of India,” decreed the style legend Diana Vreeland. And navy blue is the pink of the UK — peppy, flattering, as becoming to our complexions as fuchsia is to those of the subcontinent. Like lederhosen for the Germans, or onion strings for the Gauls, naval wear has the status of our camp national uniform.

Gabrielle Chanel did not invent Riviera style, but she did canonise it as chic, beginning with the introduction of the marinière (or striped seaman’s top) to her 1917 collection. As Justine Picardie observes in her biography, Chanel’s costumes for Diaghilev’s Le Train Bleu (1924) “were inspired by the sports clothes she had popularised in the resorts of Cannes, Deauville and Biarritz: striped tricots and bathing suits, beach sandals and golf shoes, tennis dresses and shorts . . . (‘Navy and white are the only possible colours,’ she remarked, after her first trip, ‘The Navy’s colours.’)”

Done right, nautical is a look that is gamine, mannish, yet resplendently girly, epitomising that fashion paradox of seeming more like a woman by dressing a bit like a chap. It manages to be flamboyant, foppish, tranny lite, while being coy, little missy and mock demure. Every nice girl loves a sailor, and even nasty ones look more beguiling when borrowing something of his style. For there is a perky, box-fresh prettiness that comes with a uniform; sailor suits being jaunty, kitschily cartoonish, dress up for grown-ups playing classic with a twist.

Stripes are the beacon of cabin-girl style, not least when accompanied by sail-like swathes of white linen. The lines may be stark, but flourishes are essential, be it piping, epaulettes, or glinting brass. Polka dots are no less a cruise staple: a Breton T-shirt, striped blazer and dotted scarlet neckerchief being le dernier cri in boardwalk bravura.

Done right, nautical is a look that is gamine, mannish, yet resplendently girly, epitomising that fashion paradox of seeming more like a woman by dressing a bit like a chap

Invariably, there will be something fishy about the neckline: boat necks, Nehru collars or fabulous beribboned bibs. Bottom halves comprise variations on the fruity trouser: shorts, culottes, three-quarter length trews, a ballooning bell-bottom. Pumps and deck shoes prevent one sliding amateurishly about, or for formal outings, a two-tone shoe, while cover-ups come in the form of caps, pea coats, blazers and macs.

Nautical encompasses not only the naval spiv, but his sea-faring rival, the buccaneer. Ruffle-shirted and dandyish, the pirate is the pantomime villain of the waves, a caddish New Romantic in the manner of Adam Ant. It can also take in retro, as in those Victorian children’s rig-outs, the sailor suits of the young Romanovs before the Bolsheviks came a-calling. Thus skirts are permissible if they are cut at flag-like angles, or dresses where they are doing that jeune-fille thing.

Seafaring garb may induce seasickness among landlubbers. I know women who break out in hives the moment they come into contact with an espadrille. Alas, I am rather a sucker for it all, and spent a good deal of my youth dressed as one of the Railway Children, as if any moment I might whip off my pants and wave them at a passing train.

Indeed, in the only picture that exists of me and my four siblings, I am clad in a sailor top and crested skirt. I was 20 and had scabies (an inter-railing legacy), but was channelling Shirley Temple for all I was worth.

Spring 2020’s most enthusiastic naval recruit was Michael Kors, whose catwalk show, staged at a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was a ravishing forties’ nautical love-in. Elsewhere there wasn’t a vast amount of frigging in the rigging: the odd (leather) rope belt at Tory Burch, stripes at Altuzarra and 3.1 Phillip Lim. Regardless, ask me what my style reference will be this and every March, and I give you “Romanovs en vacances.”

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