You’d think it was Mardi Gras time. Posters splayed across town of Pierre et Gilles’ bare-chested sailors and Greta Garbo in a sailor cap are gay enough, not to mention the sight of Frank Sinatra cuddling behind Gene Kelly in a still from Anchors Aweigh (1945).

But the posters are for an exhibition that has nothing to do with poofs and dykes, at least on the surface. Sailor Style: Art, Fashion, Film is simply an exploration of the influence of the sailor suit as a theme in fashion and art. Is it curator Rosie Nice’s fault that so much of her exhibition is queer as folk?

It’s what the subject presented, Nice says. And hopefully we gave every angle. As a heterosexual woman the sailor has always been a very romantic figure for me as well. Most of my gay friends love sailors -¦ it’s absolutely universal. There’s something about it.

Walking into the exhibition the first impression is aural. Three sailors belt out the classic New York, New York number from On The Town (1949) as a brass band booms Anchors Aweigh and the strains of the Village People’s In The Navy reverberates its relentless disco march.

There’s fashion by Alexander McQueen, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Coco Chanel, of course, but also stills of Brad Davis from Querelle and art works by Luke Roberts and Max Kreijn. There’s even the stunning Diesel jeans advertisement from 1995, with sailor boys celebrating naval victory with a same-sex pash.

Why the queer appeal? How about an occupation in a predominantly homosocial environment punctuated by brief landings in foreign climes? Nice agrees.

It’s very unnatural, Nice laughs. It’s the sailor with the boy and the girl in every port. They don’t have a home in that place where they’re going to, where they have all this time off and suddenly they can drink and stay out all night and do all that kind of thing.

Nice now makes a career of curating exhibitions on single subjects, having taken the helm on shows exploring the history of the scarf and the cultural significance of the waratah.

Her sweep is broad, such that the exhibition resembles the home of a bowerbird: a nest filled with disparate objects that share the same blue hue. It’s beautiful and fascinating, and somewhat mysterious.

The popularity of sailor fashion is a case in point. Striped shirts, big collars and baggy white pants have recurred in fashion surprisingly frequently since Coco Chanel first donned a sailor’s jumper in 1913. There are couture examples from every decade since then, with images of the sailor suit in children’s fashion from the 1840s.

Nice’s explanation is simple. I just think navy and white stripes look good, she says. If you’re not fat.

See it with someone on shore leave, and if you must wear stripes, Nice suggests a navy blazer -“ just to break up the lines.

Sailor Style: Art, Fashion, Film is on show at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, until 20 February 2005. Phone 9298 3777 for more information or visit

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