What can fashion tell us? (Beyond the fact that lots of us love pretty dresses). Well, look at the clothes being worn in any particular era and you’ve immediately got access to some of the interests, anxieties and events of that age. Our sartorial choices aren't made in a vacuum – they’re responsive to what’s going on around us. Whether it’s a dazzle camouflage swimsuit emulating the look of WWI warships or Coco Chanel’s beach pyjamas transforming a working man’s uniform into leisure wear, people have often adorned themselves with things pointing to particular moments or preoccupations.
Amber Jane Butchart’s book Nautical Chic pinpoints this meeting of time, place and personal appearance perfectly. Her study of naval style is located exactly where it should be: at an intersecting point between power, nationhood, aesthetics, cultural change, the odd flight of imagination, and some bloody great outfits. All of those colliding influences and shaping forces point to something neatly summarized by Rosalind Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass in Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory: ‘Clothing is a worn world: a world of social relations put upon the wearer’s body.’ And if there’s anything that Butchart’s exploration of the worn world of naval chic proves it’s that ‘the story of high fashion on the high seas’ is a smart, multi-faceted narrative – a rich thread to unravel and pull at.
The history of various nautical trends and looks is completely interwoven with what we might term BIG themes like war, the economy, working lives, sexuality, gender, class, and aspiration. Although I knew some basics like the cable knit’s transition from fishermen to fashion statement, or the continuing popularity of sailor shirts, or the status and wealth inherent in American sportswear, these sketchy estimates lacked any of the minutiae or context offered here. I had no idea that epaulettes originated in the French military – but were viewed with some distrust by Lord Nelson. I’d hardly considered the striped top’s transition from pragmatic working wear to catwalk (a transition emphasized time and time again throughout these pages), instead happy to rely on some hazy image of sails and decking brought on by the label ‘Breton top’. And the influence of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise on Jean Paul Gaultier and Marni was a complete revelation…
To me, that’s what the best fashion books do: enlarge and illuminate things one might have been vaguely aware of, giving them so much more solidity – and a backstory too. Before reading, a pea coat was something I mainly saw as a gorgeously cut garment. Now I’ve seen the movement charted from early 18th century navy to 60s YSL reimagining to present status as ‘style classic’. I also have a novel respect for various items peppering my own wardrobe: the navy blue 80s Jaeger blazer, the funny little leather fisherman’s hat I picked up at a flea market, the children’s straw boater, the striped tops, cotton sundresses designed for beach lounging, and a particularly fabulous shell print Liberty two piece. Still on the lookout for my ideal sailor dress though.
However, I might be in luck on that last point, as Amber has teamed up with vintage treasure trove chain Beyond Retro, picking out items from their vast collection with a distinctly naval feel. Oh so appropriate for a vintage chain with an anchor for its logo. Incidentally, the first dress I bought from Beyond Retro, back when I was a skinny fourteen year old – all bony knees and waist-length hair – was a mint green shift, resplendent with naval style gold buckles stretching down the front. But now there’s potential for setting sail (I’m sorry, so sorry) in any number of sartorial directions, with shorts, shirts, skirts and swimsuits a-plenty. It’s an ideal collaboration, not least because the presiding strength of Butchart’s book is not merely in the history – but also the cross-cultural links to contemporary designs. She drew out more of these links in her engaging talk at Beyond Retro last week, shaking out the history of items from Schiaparelli’s trompe l’oeil sailor jumper to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s regular use of Dixie-cup hats - though, as she pointed out in the spirit of true “fashion geek” observation, one of the muscled men in his Le Male ad is wearing the wrong style hat for that particular striped top…
What’s apparent from Butchart’s book (and her talk) is that past and present are always colliding on the catwalk, but here those intricate relationships are drawn out with dexterity. Mermaid bodices, bell bottoms, thigh high boots, skull insignia, penny loafers, striped wide skirts, knitted jumpers, decadent waistcoats – all these items can be traced back to watery beginnings, whether on the back of a captain, a pirate, or a keen yachtsman. The term ‘naval’ is as equally applicable to Tommy Hilfiger as it is to Vivienne Westwood (an unlikely pairing in the same sentence). It is indeed a wide-ranging ‘world of social relations’, whether those relations are all about rank, status, uniform, subversion, celebration, or imagination; each outfit or garment a material marker of our relationship with the sea, whether somewhere for work or play.
This was first posted on Thames & Hudson's blog. Head over there for some more stills that I shot of the book. Here I was working with a rough approximation of naval style, using a second hand Laura Ashley jumper, trousers and striped heels from a charity shop, and a vintage children's boater.