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How to wear the nautical look… without dressing like a sailor

It’s no secret that The Fashion Police are fans of the nautical look, which is more of a spring/summer classic than it is a fashion trend. But how do you wear it without looking like you’re en-route to a sailor-themed costume party? This is the question we were asked by Fashion Police reader Claudia, who writes:

“This spring the shops seem to be full of “nautical” stuff: Breton shirts, blue-red-white belts-bags-shoes-whatever, sailor’s pants, scarves with anchors printed on them, big golden anchors on rope-like cords to wear as a necklace and so on. Some years it’s safari or military, some years it’s Carmen, here in southern Germany it’s often “Alpine” stuff, and so on.

 I often wonder, as I love the nautical color scheme: How much of the stuff can you put on before you start to look like an extra on the “Flying Dutchman”? How much of themed clothes or accessories is too much? I often feel too much is rather soon – if I put on blue, red and white, than one single nautical icon starts to look theatrical. On fashion pages, on the other hand, you often see a more or less complete look. Is this just the difference between photography and reality or does it depend on who wears it?”

pin-up girl in nautical look

To answer the last question first: it doesn’t so much depend on WHO’S wearing it, as it does on HOW they’re wearing it. This applies to almost any outfit: attitude is everything, and “apologetic dressing”, in which a person is clearly uncomfortable with what they’re wearing, will always be a crime of fashion, regardless of what the outfit looks like. In order to be stylish, you have to comfortable in your skin and in your clothes. If you are, then you can probably get away with most things. If you’re not, however, you’ll run the risk of looking like you’re wearing a costume, even in the simplest of outfits.

With that said, it’s true that the nautical look is an easy one to go overboard with (sorry). As Claudia notes, fashion brands tend to go a little crazy at this time of year, with the anchors and the stripes and the rope details and the red, the white and the blue. If you like the look, it can be tempting to start with a Breton top, say, which is a very classic, understated kind of look by itself, and then, before you know it you’ve paired it with some rope-soled shoes and anchor-print pants, and you’re wondering if a sailor hat would REALLY be too much. (And yes, it would be, by the way. A sailor hat is pretty much ALWAYS too much…)

So, how do you know where to stop? How much is too much when it comes to the nautical look?

Here are a few tips to allow you to give a nod to nautical without looking like you’re in costume:

Tip# 1: Trust your gut

In general, if it feels like it’s too much, it probably IS too much. And if that sounds just a little too easy (What if your gut is wrong, after all?), allow us to refer you to what we said above, about the necessity of feeling comfortable with what you’re wearing. Honestly, it doesn’t actually matter whether your outfit is objectively “too much” or not: if YOU think it is, then your feeling of discomfort is likely to show through. You won’t look your best and you certainly won’t feel your best, so no matter how great your outfit, you won’t get any pleasure out of wearing it.

nautical look skirt and top


Tip # 2: Less is more

The nautical look is traditionally based around the colours red, white and blue, and/or anything containing a stripe print (ideally a Breton stripe, but others will work too). Basically ANY combination of these outfits will create a vaguely nautical feel, regardless of the individual items, or the style of clothes you go for. With that in mind, you can easily get a nautical look without going near an anchor-accessory or rope-print: all you need is two or more of these colours, and you’re all set. The ASOS outfit above, for instance, is completely unaccessorized, which may seem boring to some, but the fact is, it doesn’t actually NEED anything else to create a nautical vibe. This is one style of dress where less is most definitely more, and while nautical accessories can be lots of fun, and we’re not saying you can never wear them with a similarly nautically-themed outfit, you might want to either use them sparingly, or save them for a less obvious style of clothes instead. If you want to play it even safer, choose two of the three colours and leave out the last one: red and white, blue and white, or red and blue will all still look “nautical” but will be one step further away from “sailor costume” than a combination of all three.

Tip # 3: Look for less-obvious colours

If you’re worried that red, white and blue will be too much, try switching one or more of them for another colour. Like the colours alone, stripes will instantly add a nautical feel, whatever you wear them with, so try a Breton top, say, with green or yellow pants instead of red ones, or seek out stripe tops in colours other than red, white and blue: there are lots of them around right now, and while still classic, they’re a little more contemporary, and a little less costumey, than their more traditional counterparts.

nautical fashion from Boden


Ultimately, though, the fact is that there is no magic formula to abide by here: we can’t tell you that two “nautical” accessories will work, but three will always be too much, because it depends on the outfit, the accessories in question, and the person wearing them. In some cases, even one thing might be “too much”, in others you might be able to get away with three or more. There is no exact science to fashion, which is why our first, and most important tip, is based around gut instinct.

We’d love to get some input from our fellow officers on this one, so tell us:

What are your tips on wearing the nautical look without looking “costumey”?

Image: © Raynald Bélanger |

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