- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

Each year as the beach season approaches, nautical-inspired fashions roll in with it. This seems to be a banner year.

Striped tops, sailor-style pants and a color palette anchored in white with splashes of red and navy blue have been favorite resort wear for a century and continue to show up every spring, moving from British ships to East Coast yacht clubs to landlocked malls.

Tommy Hilfiger, J.Crew, Nautica, Vineyard Vines, J. McLaughlin and Sperry Top-Sider are among the brands that have made preppy sailor styles a staple in their offerings.

But look at the modern takes this year: Handbag designer Carlos Falchi, who courts a high-fashion urban customer, is offering patent leather purses decorated with giant sailboats. Nike named its new line with Payless Tailwind because the shoes aim to capture the weightlessness and purpose of a wind that blows in the same direction as a ship’s path. American Eagle has a nautical-stripe bikini with an O-ring belt.

Could it be that everyone has America’s Cup fever as the yacht race returns after its four-year hiatus? Probably not.

What’s more likely, says Tommy Hilfiger, himself a yachtsman, is that people are realizing what a versatile style it is. It’s a native look whether you’re in Nantucket, Mass., or the South of France. “Nautical” can be a blazer with a yacht club emblem or the rubber-soled shoes of a deckhand, but it’s almost always comfortable and appropriate, he says.

“You go from wearing a swimsuit on deck to something more formal and sophisticated in the evening — that’s if you’re a man or a woman,” he says. “I wear white pants quite a bit. They’re also functional because they’re cooler. I wear them with a brightly colored shirt and sometimes a navy blazer with gold buttons. That’s very traditional nautical gear.”

Traditional on Mr. Hilfiger’s sanctuary of Nantucket, where red, white and blue, flag motifs and sea-critter embroidery rule, is different from the traditional coastal outfits of, say, St. Tropez, where the biggest story is stripes and black is part of the mix. In Capri, off Italy’s coast, the colors are more tropical — purple, magenta and orange — and the style is more sophisticated, Mr. Hilfiger says.

“You can do nautical in many ways,” he says, “but the very cool way is the authentic old-world fisherman in beat-up denim bell-bottoms and a navy-and-white stripe top with a navy Greek fisherman cap and a rope as a belt. That’s the real thing.”

Actually, says Lorraine Howes, professor emerita in the apparel design department at the Rhode Island School of Design, the look considered classic nautical mostly goes back to the 19th century, when the British navy was a force to be reckoned with and idolized. For example, sailors on the British ship HMS Blazer wore jackets with brass buttons and without a seam on the waistline, almost identical to the blazer popular today.

Middle-class mothers put their young sons in sailor suits with an eye toward turning them into little men, Miss Howes says, and Queen Victoria also dressed her boys in nautical outfits.

Other oceangoing looks also easily filtered into the mainstream, she says. Take the crease in men’s chino-style pants: Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, sailors used to pick up their slacks in the port of New Bedford, Mass., where stacks of the mass-produced pants were folded and stored — thus creating that nice crease, she says.

Women also wore sailor styles in the late 1800s when their bathing dresses were trimmed with sailor collars with the square-flap back. Since then, Miss Howes can’t recall a time when the garments associated with the nautical life have been out of style.

“Nautical clothing is navy or white. Navy is the other black, and as a combination, it looks great. It works no matter who you are and where you are,” Miss Howes says.

Those garments were designed to be wearable, practical and all-purpose, she notes.

She adds: “It’s a very successful theme. Just like the little black dress, it will be with us forever.”

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