PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Fashion fans and French admirals in uniform rubbed shoulders this week at an unlikely joint exhibition in Paris celebrating the influence of sailors on the world of style.
"Les Marins Font la Mode" ("Sailors make fashion") traces the link between seafaring and fashion history, from Coco Chanel's jersey dresses to Jean Paul Gaultier's trademark navy-and-white striped tops and evening gowns.
Sailors' uniforms themselves are a reflection of the sea and an adventurous lifestyle: designers feast on the colors and textures of their jaunty white caps and striped tops, their flared trousers and gold-buttoned Caban jackets.
"Sailors have had a great influence on the creative milieu," designer Clea Tirelli, who was visiting the exhibition at the Musee de la Marine in Paris, told Reuters. "Uniforms and workwear in general are a great inspiration, and of course sailors have this popular image as travelers and heroes."
Queen Victoria started the 19th-century trend of dressing up children in miniature sailors' suits, and there is hardly a European family portrait from that period without the obligatory square, knotted collar tied around some chubby toddler's neck.
In the early 20th century, bathing beauties in French seaside resorts such as Deauville began to dress more casually, taking inspiration from the natty sailors in blue and white who would stroll up and down the promenade.
One Deauville regular, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, decided to make chic and comfortable dresses from a material that had previously been used only for men's underwear and sailor's shirts: jersey.
Her loose, floating women's trousers were also modeled along the flared trousers worn on board.
At the exhibition, a dazzling 1954 cinched white Dior cocktail dress with a crystal-studded sailor's collar and a 2005 Gaultier evening gown that looked like a deconstructed Caban jacket proved the enduring appeal of maritime chic.
And since France takes both fashion and defense matters very seriously, representatives of the two rather contrasting worlds thronged the exhibition and tried to find common ground.
Defense Minister Herve Morin evoked the importance of maritime fashion as a "symbol of freedom" and a "factor in the emancipation of women" in a speech on the opening night.
Many of the visitors were wearing the real thing: navy admirals' uniforms with polished buttons.
Mingling with them were young men in the Parisian fashion world's own uniform -- tailored jackets, turtleneck jumpers, square-rimmed glasses.
Admiral Christian Penillard, in authentic navy and gold, said he had never thought about the style of his uniform.
"But I just looked at those older paintings in the museum, and you know, the uniforms used to be a lot more ornate, with embellishments," he told Reuters. "It would be nice to have that today."
Editing by Paul Casciato