Libby Purves June podcast: While a faded fleece may be our usual boating attire, sailors have inspired high fashion for generations
“Some of the very best ‘looks’ in high fashion have travelled directly from
ships and boats”
Crewmates! We are iconic fashionistas. This status may not be immediately apparent to every dishevelled, grease- stained, horny-handed woman who hands a Mole wrench towards the straining, Breton-red backside of a spouse nose down in the engine. But the fact is that we have an ‘enduring sophistication’, ‘undeniable sex appeal’, combined with a ‘teasing innocence… power, prestige, and adornment’. Ladies – and gentlemen – we are, in short, pretty damn hot. Fashion-forward catwalk stars. We should stop all this smiling ordinariness and practice our Victoria Beckham pout. For we belong in the forefront of style.
This is revealed to me by a wonderful, weighty coffee-table book entitled Nautical Chic, by the go-to fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart (you may have spotted her a while back on breakfast telly, sporting a cool hard henna bob and explaining the Thatcher Look). She had the brilliant idea of tracing how seafaring clothes found their way into high fashion over decades, from Coco Chanel to Alexander McQueen, and, to keep us amused, has interspersed fashion- shot gloss with vintage images of real sailors like Lord Nelson or Orford fisherfolk.
And dammit, the woman is absolutely right. Some of the very best ‘looks’ in high fashion have travelled directly from ships and boats, albeit with a bit of smoothing-down and an inordinate amount of camping-up. She divides the book into major categories: officer, sailor, fisherman, pirate, with a few bonkers Gaultier and McQueen mermaids in pointy gold lamé tits and tails thrown in near the end.
The Officer look comes first, overseen by Nelson and represented, among others, by a minxy critter with a ginger Afro, fierce black eyeliner and anatomically demanding bumfreezer jacket, in which she looks rather better, and flatter-tummied, than most Admirals of my acquaintance. It seems high fashion owes the Royal Navy such important contributions as epaulettes, brass buttons and braiding. Though she does not go into the downside of this (brass buttons! my dear! don’t tell the RYS!) or shaming moments like the time my husband Paul decided to buy a white cotton top for his yachting cap and his friend Andy said: ‘Crikey, you look like a milkman.’
The Sailor and The Fisherman, do overlap a bit, not least in the matter of blue-and- white stripes, which beguiled Coco Chanel, Hepburn, Bardot and Warhol, hence just about all of us. As for an unbrushed Jane Birkin in a pea-coat… wow there’s a look we really could copy. The middy-blouse and boater, with garish red lipstick between, was a popular look between the wars, if woefully impractical for real foredecks. But Butchard also covers a more warlike look with zigzag camouflage, and the American sailors have contributed those ducky little round, white hats that have excited epicene male designers for generations. The influence of bell-bottoms on beach pyjamas is obvious, too.
The Fisherman, on the other hand, offers a ‘tribute look’ to the East Coast herring lassies with some trollopy types in short-shorts and fetish waders, and one entirely barmy sweeping Balenciaga dress made of fishnetting. Opposite, the old boys in the sepia photo look on aghast.
But we are pretty cool, we seafarers. I take it all as flattery, and personally am most drawn to The Pirate look: tying together Captain Hook, Charles II, and Vivienne Westwood raggediness.
Though The Sportsman category, with girls leaning on rigging in unfeasibly clean pale linen bloomers with the words ‘perfect for yachting, casual designs by Balmain and Patou’ took me back to reality, and to the tattered T-shirt and salt-faded fleece. But a girl can dream. And sensible yachts don’t have mirrors.