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.

Naval style, subversion and rebellion

Cutting-edge designers have often used nautical styles to create new fashion trends. The new styles and looks designers create are commonly picked up and appropriated by different social groups to form new identities for themselves and their peers, and to signify a position outside mainstream culture.

Yves Saint-Laurent was the first to bring the naval collar and reefer jacket to the catwalk in 1962. This novel collection was inspired by his friends on Paris' Left Bank, including Jean Cocteau, who were already dressing in utility wear.

'Pirate' outfit, 1981, Vivienne Westwood (b. 1941), cotton jacket, waistcoat, shirt, trousers and sash and felt hat and suede boots]

For her inaugural catwalk collection in spring 1981, self-trained British designer Vivienne Westwood chose the theme of 'pirates'. Encouraged by her partner Malcolm McClaren to 'do something romantic', Westwood created a look heavily influenced by naval styling of the 17th to 19th centuries.

These iconic catwalk trends went on to influence the work of designers, filmmakers, costumiers and pop musicians.

Glam Rock and sailor-suits

The glam rock movement of the early 1970s sought out 'glamorous' and playful styles made with luxurious fabrics, such as faux fur, velvet and satin.

Led by musicians such as David Bowie and Marc Bolan of T-Rex, these spirited nautical styles were often worn with cosmetics to create an androgynous, even effeminate, look.

Adam Ant and the New Romantics

Elements of 19th century naval uniform, such as loose-fitting shirts, breeches, cocked hats and frock-coats, were influential sources for the 'New Romantic' look.

Emerging from Britain in the early 1980s and inspired by Westwood’s catwalk collection of 1981, the New Romantic style drew upon the free-spiritedness and elegance of history's pirates and dandies to create a highly sexualised look.

Adam Ant's use of historical military and naval uniforms included glamorous frockcoats and blousy shirts, coupled with flamboyant make-up and jewellery. His distinctive style defined the New Romantic look.


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