Nautical Dress

AKA: Sailor dress, middy dress

How to say it: naw-ti-kuhl  dress

Traditional Features: 

Nautical Dress

  • obvious nautical inspiration in the overall design
  • can have stripes, braid, anchors, ropes, other nautical motifs
  • colour palette of red, white and blue
  • sailor collar or middy-blouse effects are still used but are not as common as in the past

21st Century Nautical Dresses

In the 21st century, any style that has an air of the sea is referred to as a nautical style. The full, sailor collar look is available for those who want it, but simple Breton stripes, anchor adorned styles are far more common in the modern marketplace.

House of Fraser Modcloth

House of Fraser, Modcloth

Modcloth Ralph Lauren Blue

Modcloth, Ralph Lauren Blue


…of the style: The nautical look first made an impression on the fashion world in 1846 when Queen Victoria dressed her four-year-old son, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, in a sailor suit. The style became a popular look for young children and bathing costumes (a neck-to-knee, navy and white striped costume was the ultimate in ocean-going chic), and by the 1870s women’s wear had taken up the Nautical mantle. Maritime inspired outfits with a sailor or middy collar, brass fastenings, a neck tie and rope or braid detailing in the traditional colours of red, white and blue, became the fashion for water-bound activities like swimming and yachting during the remaining decades of the 1800s.

At the turn of the century nautical clothing began to made steps into mainstream fashion appearing alongside regular day wear styles in fashion catalogues and on the street and with the onset of WWI women turned to nautical styles to show their patriotism. Maritime styles continued to be popular throughout the 1920s and 30s as nautical dresses broke away from the traditional colour palette and styling, appearing in a huge range of colours and incorporating more feminine design details like smocking and shirring. Ginger Rogers appearing in a sailor suit in “Follow the Fleet” also helped keep the trend alive.

The advent of WWII brought nautical styling back to the forefront of fashion, as the trend for patriotic dressing returned and designs reverted to the traditional colours of red, white and navy. Fabric rationing put an end to the nautical styles by the mid-40s, but the look returned in the 1950s and remained a big part of mainstream fashion right the way through the 60s (boxy, middy-blouse styles suited the Mods), 70s (bell sleeves and sailor collars were everywhere) and 80s (lots of brass buttons and shoulder pads).

Since then nautical inspired clothing has been a mainstay on the fashion landscape, as designers take different parts of the original style and reinvent it to fit their own vision. Coco Chanel, and later, John Galliano favoured Breton stripes, Vivienne Westwood did nautical with a pirate spin and Ralph Lauren has been known to use the odd anchor motif in his collections.

In the 21st century, the full-on nautical dress complete with middy collar, neck tie and brass embellishments does exist, but not in the numbers that it once did. Modern labels tend to take bits and pieces of the look and use them to add a nautical feel to the garment with trends seeming to call for a less-is-more approach to the maritime look. As such, the definition of ‘nautical dress’ has shifted and is now applied to any style that gives a subtle hint to nautical inspiration, rather than shouting it from the main mast.

…of the name: The style was inspired by nautical uniforms, hence the name.

Random Facts

  • Coco Chanel is often accredited with bringing nautical style to the forefront of women’s fashion, after she was photographed in a striped sailor top at a beach resort in France.

For more info on Nautical clothing try Tuppence Ha’Penny Vintage, The Vintage Fashionistas or check out the Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion

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