How To Wear The Boatneck, Meghan Markle’s New Signature Style

Maija Kappler
Meghan Markle wearing boatneck dresses (left to right) on a trip to Ireland, at her wedding, and an Air Force event in London.

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.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle leave St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle after their wedding. Her wedding dress, designed by Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy, has a bateau neckline.
Meghan Markle wearing a Roland Mouret boatneck dress with Prince Harry on the second day of their royal visit to Ireland.
Meghan Markle wears a Dior dress at a reception to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force on July 10, 2018.

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."

French print, circa 1920, of a Jeanne Lanvin boatneck dress design. The caption reads "At the opera: Coat and dress for the evening, by Jeanne Lanvin"

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.

Left: a Jeanne Lanvin boatneck dress design from Winter 1921. Right: a Chinese print silk blouse with a boatneck, c. 1922-23, Franklin Simon Company.
Boatneck dress designs by Lanvin and Callot Soeurs.

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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"Ippy and Gertie Posing at Fashion House Hirsch, Amsterdam," ca. 1916, by Dutch painter Isaac Israels. The woman on the left is wearing a boatneck dress.

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.

Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy in Breakfast at Tiffany's