I’ve been reading fashion history books for a very long time, and I’ve come to a conclusion: the best books have a narrow focus that is meticulously researched combined with illustrations that clearly illustrate the author’s points. So often books about “vintage fashion” or even overviews of fashion history fail to hit the mark because the author tries to cover too much territory in too few pages. Of course, every fashion library needs to have a few volumes that are just fashion history overviews, but once the basics are covered, it is then time to narrow the focus.
Nautical Chic is such a tightly focused book. I follow author Amber Jane Butchart on Twitter and Instagram, and over the past year or so I’ve read about her on-going research of the influence of the sea upon fashion. You know a historian is really enjoying her topic when she can’t help but post the great information she is uncovering on twitter.
Butchart identified five major influences of nautical fashion: the officer, the sailor, the fisherman, the sportsman and the pirate. Each chapter is filled with information and illustrations from the seventeenth century through the twenty-first. The illustrations are a mix of contemporary fashion photos, vintage advertising, historic lithographs, old photos and photos of examples of vintage and modern clothing.
The officer influence can be seen both in a fashion plate from 1827 and in the work of Alexander McQueen, 1996.
The sailor gave us the middy, or midshipman’s blouse. On the left you can see Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1928 sweater that incorporates trompe l’oeil to depict the middy. Beside it is a 1996 version from designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. And on the right is a middy blouse from Yohji Yamamoto, 2007.
It seems like everyone loves a good Breton fisherman’s pullover shirt. The one above is from French maker St. James. On the right you see Coco Chanel in a sweater inspired by the chandails of fishermen from Normandy. Beside it is Karl Lagerfeld’s updated version.
The yachtsman’s sporting attire was easily adapted to fashionable cruise and seashore clothing. The yachtswoman on the left dates from 1899. On the right is a fashion illustration from 1932.
And finally, the pirate influence dates from the 1600s, and today is probably most associated with Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. Above notice the 1920s “pirates” on the far left. The modern day pirate is from Marni, 2010, and the two on the right are from 1966.
I love the mix of illustrations, pulled from many different sources. So often in fashion history books one see the same old photos over and over, but in Nautical Chic there are just a handful that I’ve seen in other resources. To me this is important. If an author takes the time to insure that the illustrations are fresh, then it is a good sign that the research is as well.
I really enjoyed reading the text. It was full of fascinating facts and connections that I’d never made. For example, it was the Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy who introduced the striped marinière to their fashionable friends in 1923. These friends included Hemingway, Picasso, and the Scott Fitzgeralds. Now we are all wearing the marinière in some form.
To someone like me who loves sportswear, and who loves the stories behind objects, Nautical Chic was a true delight.