The origins of nautical fashion in Britain

The enduring influence of nautical styles in fashion have been long celebrated in British culture. Find out more about its origins and the role of Queen Victoria.

As a maritime nation, naval and nautical styles have played an important part in the story of British identity and fashion.

The image of the sailor has been long used to communicate affluence, obedience, order, bravery and loyalty.

Queen Victoria sets a fashion trend

The popularity of nautical style in mainstream society can be traced back to Queen Victoria who inspired a trend that soon became widespread in general fashion. In 1846 Queen Victoria had a child’s sailor uniform made on board the royal yacht for her son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. The Queen recorded the first time he wore it in her diary.

'Bertie put on his sailor's dress, which was beautifully made by the man on board who makes for our sailors. When he appeared, the officers and sailors who were all assembled on deck to see him, cheered, and seemed delighted'.

The commissioned child’s sailor-suit was primarily intended as a surprise for her husband, Prince Albert. Albert was so delighted that he asked German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter to paint a portrait of his son wearing the uniform. This expression of fashion by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert launched a trend for sailor-suits among the affluent classes, in particular in children's dress and leisure wear. Over time, nautical styles became a mark of status in British society.

Evoking a sense of pride

Naval styles in British fashion have also been 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.

The celebrated British ballerina, Dame Margot Fonteyn, wore a hat made during the Second World War which had a design that drew directly from the British sailor's cap. This symbolic head piece illustrated the close relationship that existed between fashion and uniform at this time. Patriotic associations were embodied in accessories clearly inspired by official naval dress.

Using our collections for research

The Museum's uniform, prints, drawings and historic photograph collections offer a wide range of materials of use to fashion designers, costume researchers and other design professionals and students.

Transcripts of early uniform regulations, plus photographs of items held elsewhere can be accessed in the Caird Library and Archive at the National Maritime Museum in London. 

Many items from our collections are on display at the National Maritime Museum.

Find out how to use our collections for research