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Fashion Follows Sailor Suit

Late last spring, just as the warmer weather was beginning in Melbourne, I amused myself (and my work colleagues) by adopting a nautical theme for a week. I have long loved stripes – a nautical staple – and the classic colour combination of blue, red, and white which I very often choose to wear, nautical theme or not.

Traditional sailor suits … influenced the design of the new bathing suits and other clothing …

Nautical fashion has for many decades been popular for the warmer seasons, with its obvious link to seaside activities. The fashion first took off in the mid nineteenth century, when ‘sportswear for the new woman’ first started being produced. Traditional sailor suits, ie, naval uniforms with flap collars, stripes and bellbottoms, influenced the design of the new bathing suits and other clothing designed for regattas, yachting, boating and seaside promenading.

Coco Chanel in the interwar periodFrench sailors; the marinière or tricot rayé (striped sweater) is a cotton long-armed shirt with horizontal blue and white stripes, characteristically worn by quartermasters and seamen in the French navy.Coco Chanel was another enormous influence after adopting the sailor-collared top (as opposed to Breton striped tees) worn by the local fishermen and sailors in the resort town of Deauville, where she opened her first store on the coast of France in 1913. At the same time, ‘Middy’ blouses, inspired by the uniform of midshipmen were worn by school children for gym activities; by the 1920s they were a huge women’s fashion trend.

1920s middy shirtFashion in the decades after followed suit, adopting the look not just for sportswear, but for daywear, and to the present day we are still wearing nautical influenced garments (although it still seems chiefly only for daytime). Every nautical motif once can think of has been deployed by fashion designers in both blatant and subtle iterations, from the triumvirate of the three most popular colours of blue, red and white; stripes and flag graphics; middy tops and sailor collars; neckties and pussy bows; every type of nautical hat – boaters, fisherman and sailor caps; high-waisted bellbottoms; to naval trim such as gold buttons and braid, and rope, anchor and sailboat motifs. 

It’s fun, it’s sporty and casual, easy and breezy, and denotes summertime and carefree holidays so very particularly – no wonder nautical fashion has remained popular!

Click through to view my gallery of all my nautical looks of the week, and keep scrolling for nautical looks throughout the decades.

Read more about nautical Fashion

Stories on nautical fashion by Vintage Dancer and Blue Velvet Vintage are worth a read – both include some great images from different eras.

Genealogy Lady has written a short history on the middy blouse.

Frenchly reveals that Coco Chanel did not make Breton stripes a thing!

For seaside fashion of the nineteenth century, visit Mimi Matthews.

Nautical fashions through the decades

Victorian era, c 1890sEdwardian wool bathing suit1920s swimsuit1930s nautical daywear fashions1940s dress (LIFE magazine)1950s1960s1970sMarch 1982February 1992, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington wearing Ralph Lauren on Vogue's coverLes Indes galantes collection, Lascar dress, Haute couture, spring/summer 2000, Jean-Paul GaultierZuhair Murad, RTW Spring 2016All images found on Pinterest unless otherwise indicated with direct links.


À La Mode

In honour of the French national holiday today, I bring you a Paris-inspired fashion editorial from the April 1994 issue of Australian Vogue, shot by the French photographer Pascal Chevalier.  

The Belle Époque-inspired fashion (some of it French) was photographed around famous sights of Paris, including Maxim’s Restaurant, the famous Art Nouveau entrance to the Metro and the Bois du Boulogne, a park in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

Bonne fête to my French readership!

[Click on the images for larger versions]


Liza Doolittle Day

Liza Doolittle Day

It’s Eliza Doolittle Day, did you know? It’s a long time since I have seen the film My Fair Lady, I must admit, and the thing I love most about it is that it’s Audrey Hepburn playing the title role, and Cecil Beaton designed the costumes.

A while back I was reminded that in a scene where Eliza daydreams about meeting the king, she sings these words:

One evening the king will say:
“Oh, Liza, old thing,
I want all of England your praises to sing.
Next week on the twentieth of May
I proclaim Liza Doolittle Day!
All the people will celebrate the glory of you
And whatever you wish and want I gladly will do.”

At that point in the story, Eliza wished ’Enry ’Iggins dead!

However, my sartorial homage here is to her famous black and white racing outfit. I’m wearing a mix of vintage and more contemporary items. The screw-on earrings are 40s; the gloves – trimmed in bows – are 50s; the skirt and belt 80s, and the Edwardian hat is from the late 90s (the milliner was inspired by Kate Winslet’s hat at the start of the film Titanic). The jabot and striped shirt are more modern numbers.

Here’s to you Liza!

Photo: May 2018


“Get this Corset Off Me!”

In this day and age Western women take breathing easily for granted. But once upon a time it was not so easy. A century and a half ago women’s breathing and digestion was severely restricted by the regular wear of a corset; muscles were weakened, and more besides, depending upon how tightly the corset was laced. (Multiple petticoats must have been a pain too, not to mention straight shoes – lefts and rights were not invented until approximately the mid nineteenth-century.)

It is no wonder that in these circumstances the scandalous tea gown came to be invented.

What do you generally do when you come home? You make yourself comfortable. We kick off our shoes, remove our restrictive workwear (sometimes including even our bras) and don instead tracksuits, leggings, jeans or pyjamas and wear slippers or go barefoot. We throw ourselves onto our couches with a sigh of relief, and enjoy a tipple of our favourite beverage.

Edwardian lady wearing a tea gown. Image from 'Seduction' by Caroline Cox, Mitchell Beazley, 2006. (No image credit captioned.)Why should not the Edwardian lady have been the same? Picture her coming home and exclaiming to her maid as she rips the elaborate hat off her head, “Get this corset off me! Let me put up my feet and drink a cup of tea.” She lounges back in her boudoir with a sigh of blissful relief and stretches her legs and wriggles her toes, and takes big breaths in between ladylike sips of restorative Earl Grey.

“Get this corset off me! Let me put up my feet and drink a cup of tea.”

And what was she wearing while she relaxed? At first perhaps she was wearing merely a wrapper over her chemise and bloomers, which meant she was not dressed to receive company. But what if her best friend paid her an afternoon call? She couldn’t receive her in her underwear! (Imagine if you did that today.)

And then the tea gown was born.

Broderie anglaise 'boudoir dress' by the House of Doeuillet; illustrated by André Marty for 'La Gazette du bon ton', 1913. From 'The Fine Art of Fashion' by Julian Robinson, Bay Books (no publish date listed – late 1980s?)Woman's tea gown, Miss Bishop 1870s; Silk satin with supplementary weft patterning, linen machine-made lace, and silk plain weave trim.

What, exactly, is a tea gown?

Tea gowns were worn from the 1870s until the 1930s, and essentially are gowns that can be put on and taken off without the assistance of a maid. They are extremely feminine; long and loose without defined waists, cut on princess lines and made from luxurious fabrics. Sleeves were at first tight, but by the 20s and 30s were also relaxed, so that the whole effect was flowing and languid, and principally, informal.

a tea gown was considered a hybrid somewhere between a wrapper (or bathrobe) and an evening gown

Because a tea gown was considered a hybrid somewhere between a wrapper (or bathrobe) and an evening gown, early versions were designed to look like a robe worn over a dress. The under-dress was waisted with a sash, and the robe on top was loose and open, and it usually featured a train. The tea gown generally had a high neck, as daytime garments always did, distinguishing it from the décolleté evening gown.

Fabrics featured lace; floral embellishments as part of the Art Nouveau movement; medieval details, historical elements from the 17th and 18th centuries; and also exotic details from the Chinese, Japanese and Indian arts popular at the time.

This 1899 engraving shows the stark difference between a day dress and a tea gown.Elaborate tea gown from the House of Rouff, c. 1900. Woven silk damask embroidered with glass, metal thread and beads, and embroidered net and lace. V&A

Emily Post, in 1922, describes it thus:

‘Every one knows that a tea-gown is a hybrid between a wrapper and a ball dress. It has always a train and usually long flowing sleeves; is made of rather gorgeous materials and goes on easily, and its chief use is not for wear at the tea-table so much as for dinner alone with one’s family. It can, however, very properly be put on for tea, and if one is dining at home, kept on for dinner.’ – Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922.

Why were tea gowns so scandalous?

Silk tea gown in a glorious saffron shade, by American designer Jessica Franklin Turner, c. 1929. Perhaps at first the tea gown was worn in real privacy, then in the company of intimate friends over tea, macaroons and a cosy chat. Then one day a close gentleman friend might have come calling in the afternoon, and what harm in having him come in for a cup of tea too?

The design of the tea gown must have slowly evolved during this process, becoming more elaborate as it escaped its tenure in the boudoir and entered the dining room, then other friends’ dining rooms, and eventually out into the world. But at first it was considered scandalous because to wear a tea gown, or glorified wrapper, was to be en deshabille – that is, undressed. And to receive gentlemen callers thus attired showed a woman had shockingly lax morals – even, perhaps, lovers.

to wear a tea gown, or glorified wrapper, was to be en deshabille – that is, undressed

Much was made of the scandalous nature of tea gowns because of the supposition that naturally one must be entertaining lovers simply because it was so easy to remove, and one was practically naked beneath it. Surely not every woman who wore one had a lover! I maintain that the far greater attraction was the freedom of movement and breathing it allowed. Why else would it have emigrated from the boudoir? For at the turn of the twentieth century, reformers were campaigning for women to rid themselves of the corset once and for all, and the tea gown was proclaimed as an ideal garment. Its superior comfort must have been obvious to any woman who wore one. Some of the previously widely-proclaimed ills of daily corset-wearing have been debunked today, but there are still genuine health concerns – read about them in this modern corsetry guide.

By the 1920s and 30s, tea gowns more resembled just another style of afternoon dress, but even then with global lifestyle changes after industrialisation, two World Wars and revolutions in the class system, it became an impractical garment: a relic of an era and way of life long-gone. Today such a gown would – ironically – be considered quite dressy, perhaps something we might wear formally to a garden party or a wedding, but in fact its liberating spirit lives on, albeit in less graceful forms.

Chiffon dress, its bodice is overlaid with paisley embroidery, and is cut away to reveal a black lace knee-length slip – very much reminiscent of tea gowns; Christian Lacroix, c 1992; from British Vogue.Tea dresses styled haute grunge, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, c. 1992; from British Vogue

Fashion Notes

My modern silk dress is of course not an authentic tea gown, but its colours, floral print and flowing lines all brought to mind the tea or afternoon dresses of the 1930s that I love. Its simple cut and ‘short’ length (ie, lack of train) do however make it more wearable as a day dress, which does fit in with the ethos of a tea gown. The earrings are hand made by myself from jade and Indian beaded beads; the ceramic ring is a souvenir from Barcelona; and the supremely comfortable ballet flats are by Sambag. (Both dress and shoes were bought second hand from thrift stores.)


To read about the evolution of tea gowns in greater detail, visit The Dreamstress, written by Leimomi Oakes, a textile and fashion historian.

Read more about the history and mythology of corset-wearing at Yesterday’s Thimble, by Lisha Vidler.

Photos: April 2016


Sunburn is So Out This Year

Happy New Year Snapettes! Nearly the whole of January has passed already. I had meant to make my big comeback before this, but I wanted to do a whole new story instead of using my enormous backlog of unpublished pictures, and I have had a black eye. Well, it was actually mauve rather than black (black is so out this year), but it was quite swollen and unsightly. It is almost better now and fit for public viewing. So here I am at last, huzzah!

January of course is the traditional time to make New Year’s Resolutions. I have made a few for 2015, divided under the category of Personal and Fashion. I am going to share my fashion resolutions with you just for a giggle.

The first one regards sunburn, and I shall go into detail here, but I shall only briefly mention the others or this story will be extremely long and I shall have nothing to write about later. The second has to do with scarves, the third with ironing, and the fourth with mending.

Is anything bigger than a sombrero? From ‘The Century of Hats’ by Susie Hopkins; (Chartwell Books, 1999). No picture credit provided.So, back to sunburn. I hereby and forthwith declare I will not get sunburned in 2015. (This will be a real feat if I succeed, for it’s summer in Melbourne … although this summer has been quite paltry thus far, so I may yet triumph.)

I am not big on suntans, but I am even less big on suntan lines. I loathe and abominate suntan lines with every fibre of my being. Ugh. Especially on my chest (I wear a lot of scoop-neck tops.) Also, you know, wrinkles, and skin cancer. It ain’t called a sunburn for no reason!

Some of you might at this point be thinking, ‘Um, what about sunscreen?’

I hate sunscreen. It’s disgusting and sticky and gross. The only time I wear it is on the beach. I am aware this is a foolhardy stance for someone who lives in southern Australia, so close to the hole in the sky. And the sun here really does wicked burn – it’s no surprise that one sees a lot of holidaying Brits here the colour of lobsters.

… it’s no surprise that one sees a lot of holidaying Brits here the colour of lobsters

Hat by Sybilla, late 1980s; from ’Hats’ by Colin McDowell (Thames & Hudson, 1992) This is why many years ago I started wearing hats. I began as a teen with wide-brimmed summer hats purely for sun protection, and that gradually lead me into my passion (some of my friends may say mania) for vintage millinery. However, not all hats are wide-brimmed enough for sun protection, and that is why more often than not I will carry a parasol. It covers a larger area too, obviously.

When I first started using parasols, I was absolutely the only person for miles around that did so. Skip forward just a few years (cough, cough) to the present day when I have even seen men using umbrellas as parasols. (That was an extraordinary and hitherto undocumented moment for Australian men’s fashion.)

A small parasol provides shade for a day at the races, Deauville, France; from ‘Style Book’ by Elizabeth Walker (Flammarion, 2010)This is a true story: I remember once waiting at some pedestrian lights with my parasol held aloft, where I was accosted by an African girl with very dark skin, who admired my incredible courage in carrying a parasol. (I wasn’t aware this was a dangerous occupation.) She confided that she actually had a skin condition, which she had been recommended by doctors to alleviate with the use of a parasol – but she was too embarrassed to carry one. She pleaded for my advice. I promptly gave her sartorial permission to deploy one. I don’t know if she availed herself of it, but it’s true a parasol is a common sight on Melburnian streets nowadays.

Here is my pictorial treatise in the various summer hats that have recently passed into my hands. Every one of these is secondhand. Most of them are natural straw.

The Sailor

This whimsical black hat at first glance resembles a beret, but either it is too small for my head to be worn as such, or it is in fact a sailor hat, and meant to be worn atop the head. It offers little to no protection, but it looks very fetching! This is one of two that is not made of natural straw, and does not have a label inside. I think I paid about $7 for it.

The Fedora

Made from chocolate brown straw, this fedora has quickly become one of my favourite casual hats to wear. (I wore it for almost the entirety of my trip to Sydney last November, where, incidentally, I got quite burned on my chest.) It is Italian-made, by Milana. When I bought this in a Red Cross thrift store, it still had the original tag attached – the owner had clearly not worn it once! I paid $4 for it, and in fashion dollars that has whittled down to mere cents. (That’s called shopping sense.)

The Boater (I)

I never used to like boaters. I’m not sure why. Maybe I saw too many period films set in the Edwardian era and conceived a dislike of them. Anyway, I came across this $5 English hat made by Headliner in a thrift store in Lorne, on the Victorian coast. That band is made of grosgrain ribbon, one of the commonest millinery trimmings.

The Boater (II)

This boater was produced by Australian label Peter Jago, and is wider-brimmed than boater #1, which makes it marginally more practical and less decorative. The grosgrain ribbon is olive coloured, a rather unusual choice. Boaters can, at least, look more saucy when worn at a tilt. In fact, it ought to be mandatory for all hats to be worn with a rakish tilt! I can’t recall what I paid for it, but I am fairly certain it was not more than $4–$5.

The Picture Hat

A picture hat, sometimes known as a Gainsborough, is an elaborate wide-brimmed hat, and is so-called from the way the broad brim frames the face to create a ‘picture’ (thank you Wikipedia). Mine is by Witchery, an Australian fashion chain. I actually purchased it at the same Vinnies thrift store for $10, (along with the sailor hat and the olive-banded boater – some fearless lady had clearly donated hats in a big lump sum).

The Cartwheel

I bought this vintage 1970s hat on Etsy. It is the widest-brimmed hat (available for purchase at least) that I have ever seen. My search in fact was inspired by a fashion photo I had seen somewhere of some 1930s or 40s Hollywood startlet wearing just such a hat. I immediately hankered after one. After I purchased it, the seller told me she had a famous New York bridal fashion magazine begging to borrow it for a photoshoot! The brim measures about 23cm (or 9”) and is so wide and floppy that I feel like I might take off in a high wind like the Flying Nun. It is not made from natural straw; however, it has tassels, and tassels compensate for anything.

The Parasol

However, notwithstanding their decorative nature, the amount of sun protection hats offer is obviously limited. To really confound the burning rays of our Australian sun, the big guns are required. If you hold a parasol at the right angle, you can even protect your naked sandalled feet (who remembers to daily slather sunscreen on their feet?).

This umbrella is vintage – 1960s perhaps. I found it in an antique bazaar a couple of years ago in Geelong, a small Victorian city, and pounced on it immediately. Kelly green! I love Kelly green. It has a yellow plastic handle, with a cord loop for convenient wrist-endanglement. 

I, in my alter ego as the Umbrella Killer, know umbrellas, and I can inform you that they don’t make them like they used to (you probably know this already). Vintage umbrella frames are made from a better-quality steel that does not break or warp easily in strong winds. The designs are usually more interesting too. And, bonus points: they often bear a steel pointy end, which makes them a magnificent weapon of self-defence to fend off muggers! Win, win, win!

It is a pity, considering our climate, that manufacturers don’t produce attractive fabric parasols (they are missing a unique opportunity in the market thereby), but a plastic rain umbrella can be substituted, and in the case of Melbourne with its freakishly erratic weather, it is likely to be mighty useful in fending off the rain all on the same day!

So, there you have it. I believe I am in possession of quite an adequate arsenal with which to protect my fair complexion, and so far I can proudly report I have escaped sunburn. Although that might have something more to do with the quantity of rain we’ve had this summer than anything else!