Whether you're one of those people who helped the coat Meghan Markle wore for her engagement photos sell out within minutes (Line the Label, btw), or you just kind of like how she dresses, you may have noticed her new favourite style: the bateau neckline. Also called the boatneck, it's a neckline that runs from shoulder to shoulder, straight across the collarbone. The new Duchess of Sussex seems to be a big fan of the trend: her Givenchy wedding dress had a bateau neckline, and she's worn a similar style at many of her public appearances since then.
Many people credit Chanel with the invention of the neckline, but according to Jonathan Walford, director and curator at the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ont., the credit actually goes to another early 20th-century French female designer. Jeanne Lanvin, founder of the Lanvin fashion house, started incorporating boatnecks into her designs around 1919 and 1920.
"This is stylistically the period when clothing is getting that art-deco, geometric, tubular kind of look," Walford says. "It's losing the curvaceous puffiness of the Edwardian period. We're no longer looking at contouring dresses around a woman's figure, we're now negating her figure."
The boatneck took off among the Paris elite who could afford haute couture, and began its recognizable trickle down towards the rest of us over the next few years. "By 1922, you can go to Ladies Home Journal and there are patterns for how to do the bateau neckline," Walford says.
While its name is nautical and its design seems to evoke the classic "Breton" shirt — think ultra-stereotypical image of Frenchman carrying baguette, and you probably think of someone wearing a broad-shouldered navy and white striped top like the ones French sailors used to wear under their tunics — Walford thinks it's unlikely that Lanvin was trying to recreate that look, and it's more tenable that the name came afterward. (He couldn't pinpoint an exact date, but thinks it started to be called the boatneck after WWII.)
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The neckline came back in style in the mid-1950s, largely due to a fashion icon many people have connected to Meghan Markle: Audrey Hepburn. She wore several boatnecks for her title role in the 1954 movie "Sabrina," which caused enough of a sensation that some people started calling the style "the Sabrina neckline." She also famously wore a black boatneck dress in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," designed by Givenchy — the same label that created Markle's wedding dress.
The boatneck was a good fit for the slim, graceful Helpburn, Walford says. Givenchy "wanted to bring attention to her good parts: beautiful neck, beautiful collarbone."
Rocking the boat(neck): How to wear a bateau neckline
The boatneck is an almost universally flattering style, says Kirsten Reader, a Toronto-based wardrobe stylist. But very busty women might prefer a v-neck, she says, so as not to appear too top-heavy. Otherwise, anyone can go for it — just be aware of tailoring. "If it's a structured dress, it really needs to be fitted in the bust. Otherwise it looks quite boxy," she says. "If it's a jersey, you have a lot more room."
In terms of accessories, it's a great opportunity show off some earrings, Reader says. "I am not a fan of a necklace with it, because it competes." But the boatneck "frames the face so beautifully that earrings help draw the eye to the face, which I love."
Another bit of practical advice: because the neck goes all the way to the shoulders, you'll have to remember not to wear a regular bra. "Straps cut through the line, and you lose the beautiful shape of the bateau," Reader says. "You need to do strapless." Or, "if you're able to go braless, by all means, go braless!"
Overall, because the boatneck conveys simple elegance, she suggests being minimalistic with accessories. "Because it's so sophisticated, keep everything else simple," she advises.
There are many dresses and shirts available at price points more accessible than those of the royals.
Here's a Nai Lu-na fitted sheath dress in a similar lemon yellow to the one Meghan wore at a royal event earlier this month:
A sheath with a sash by Alice + Olivia:
A chiffon and lace option by Le Château:
A sweet Anne Klein dress with a front bow:
A summery pattern boatneck by Fit and Flare, available on ModCloth:
An orange bandeau at AllSaints:
And a great option under $30 by H&M:
Walford and Reader agree that the boatneck is a great style for the new Duchess of Sussex. "She's in the public eye, so the clothing that she picks now has to be very carefully chosen," Walford says. "She's got a lovely neck, and a good collarbone. It's very sexy, but not too salacious for a royal family member."
In addition to Audrey Hepburn, Reader sees another fashion icon in Meghan's choices: Grace Kelly, who, like Markle, was an American actress who become a royal. Both Audrey and Grace had styles that "are still timeless now, which is what's so wonderful about that neckline," Reader says. A boatneck dress "is a great piece to have in your closet forever," she says. "You'll never look outdated."
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