Over the past year, Meghan Markle has become synonymous with the boatneck, or the “bateau,” neckline. The Duchess of Sussex first made waves with the classic, clavicle-baring cut at her wedding to Prince Harry this past May, for which she wore a custom Givenchy gown by artistic director Clare Waight Keller. (Fun fact: There was a spike in Google searches for “boatneck” on that very day.) Since then, the newly royal Markle has flashed her collarbone at the majority of her outings, including two back-to-back events in early July: a polished olive dress by Ralph Lauren to Prince Louis’s christening and a black Dior dress to the RAF100 event.
While Markle looks quite elegant in a boatneck dress, the silhouette draws a great deal of criticism. I mentioned it in a team meeting and was met with a collective eye roll. Terms rang out like “dated!” and “old!” I later did some digging with my colleagues to figure out exactly what made the cut so disliked. “Country clubby Waspy!” said Vogue culture writer Bridget Read, adding, “It just makes me think of my mom’s late-’80s bridesmaids dresses at her wedding.” Another colleague, who preferred to stay anonymous, flatly noted: “It is a neckline that we haven’t seen in forever. I can’t remember seeing it anywhere,” she said. “It feels ’50s housewife.” True. I searched the Vogue archives and the last time there was even a whisper of the word “boatneck,” it was a shirt sunken into a lone page in 2015. Welp.
But why should we hate the boatneck so much? It does not fall into that divisive bad-taste-good-taste category, like the wallet chain or thong sandal. The boatneck belongs to prim wardrobes. It first appeared in the pages of Vogue in the ’40s, as vacation garb for upper-crust New England beaches. Fast-forward to the cusp of the millennium: Vogue included a charming orange quarter-length-sleeve boatneck shirt by Petit Bateau in its May 1999 Index. It was titled “Prep Talk” and sat smack-dab next to the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, a summertime icon. For eveningwear, it recalls the polished ’50s—say, Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn, and Grace Kelly. (Vogue senior fashion writer Janelle Okwodu said it makes her think of: “French people, Jackie Kennedy, and Oleg Cassini.”) The boatneck is a signifier of old-timey glamour and buttoned-up money, which should translate to positive polish. But it is for those very reasons that the boatneck is not particularly cool or accessible; it may even read as out of touch. It’s marooned in its ivory tower, especially when the world is responding to critical issues with trends like “warcore.”
That said, it’s not all bad for the boatneck, at least visually. Its shape is great for the body’s figure. Vogue culture editor Alessandra Codinha shared a thought: “I think it is traditionally a very elegant neckline—and it tends to make the waist look smaller, by drawing the eye laterally at the top.” Vogue market editor Alexandra Gurvitch likes it, too, but from a modest point of view. “In the church [Markle] got married in, she had to be modest but she subverted it by the boatneck dress,” she wrote, adding, “the neck or clavicle is a woman’s best asset. Nothing more sexy!”
All things considered, the duchess is making it work for her and proportion-wise, it makes sense. Plus, Markle is under constant scrutiny, as the royal family dress code dictates how much skin she can show—whether she wears a dress with a semi-sheer bodice in her engagement portrait or shows too much shoulder at an event. The boatneck is a conservative way for the new royal to show some skin. Though, as for whether or not it will make a comeback on the runway? It’s unclear if the Markle sparkle will radiate that far into fashion. But like always, it could be worse, especially when it comes to those Buckingham Palace–mandated dress codes. Vogue runway director Nicole Phelps made a strong point: “Boatnecks aren’t as offensive as nude pantyhose.” Boatnecks are, indeed, just the tip of the iceberg.
This article first appeared on Vogue.com