Sailor Chic

National Maritime Museum

to 2nd December 2007

What do the colour black, Christmas trees and sailor suits have in common?

They’re all fashion-fads started by Queen Victoria and her family that, unlike other Victorian delights – crinolines, stuffed birds and child chimney sweeps – have stayed with us and, if anything, are even more popular now than on their introduction.

It was back in 1846 that Little Prince Albert Edward was given a miniature sailor suit to play in. He looked so cute that his mum had him painted wearing it, and so many people said “Aaahhh…” that suddenly every Victorian child was saddled with wearing the white trousers, white jacket with flappy collar and straw hat ensemble.

Little Bertie was clearly thinner at under-10 than he was by the time he became the tubby arbiter of Edwardian taste we’re more familiar with. The first thing you see as you walk into the Maritime Museum’s latest exhibition is that very sailor suit and I would defy any child of today to fit into it. Beautifully preserved, it shows that little Bertie-wertie was quite tall for his age – but ridiculously thin. The ideal shape, in fact, to be that child chimney-sweep…

I’ve been meaning to visit this exhibition since it opened in July, but truth told, I forgot it was on. Sadly, it would seem, so did everyone else. I just stopped hearing about it, and it missed even my phantom radar. I walked up to the desk, fiver ready in sweaty paw, only to be told it was now free to get in – apparently so few people came and actually paid that they made the exhibition open to all.

It’s in the bit to the right that used to hold the history of navigation exhibit, which I was rather sad to see the end of. I really liked that sparkly sky and the Francis Drake stuff, not to mention dark bits where they displayed the Titanic material. Admittedly, though, it was like much of the museum – bright and light and extremely enjoyable, and when you come to think of it afterwards you remember the settings more than the exhibits themselves – in that respect it’s an MTV-generation museum – you’ll be temporarily entertained but can’t expect depth.

They may have removed a good permanent exhibit to put on a nautical fashion show, but it is very enjoyable for all that. Near Bertie’s suit there is a similar one from the early 20th Century later, virtually unchanged in 60 years, save for a little whistle on a lanyard. There are examples of real navy clothes – from mess suits and formal wear to duffel coats and blazers, then ways that fashion has taken ideas from the sea and turned them to its own uses. There are a pair of very fetching His & Hers Edwardian bathing costumes and some early maritime-inspired clothes from the steamer years of the 1920s and 30s.

By the stuff to do with WWII, there is a slightly annoying loop tape of films – various catwalk shows interspersed with Hollywood movies and news clips, put to a soundtrack of Gene Kelly, The Village People (“…In the Naveee”)and some Andrews Sisters lookalikes. It’s great the first time round but by the time I’d heard it 15 times it was driving me nuts.

There are several outfits from the New Romantic era – I enjoyed a natty pirate costume designed and worn by Adam Ant, for example (he was very thin, too, btw, and his hairdo could definitely imply a spell up a chimney…) Opposite is a sort of giant family tree of nautical design history.

The final cases house examples of some stunning designer-wear – Chanel, John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood – the usual suspects – but it’s always wonderful to see what real couture clothes look like close-up – the detail is incredible. I particularly liked a stripy evening dress by J.P. Gaultier and a beaded top by Karl Lagerfield. I was less taken by a Laura Ashley suit from the 80s that looked like it would have been worn by a maiden aunt at a wedding, though I guess that’s history too.

It’s definitely worth a look – and, having seen it, it probably would even have been worth the £ 5 to get in. It’s just a shame nobody went. IMHO they didn’t publicise it enough…

Get over while you can and enjoy it for nothing. Zero. Zilch, Free, Gratis and at no extra charge.


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