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Breton Stripes: A Potted History

Posted by Angus Walker on

Breton stripes have become fashion royalty, and their chic, simple style has brought an effortless cool to wardrobes all over the world, ever since Audrey Hepburn rocked her own timeless variation back in the 1950s.

But Breton stripes have been worn with pride for much longer than that. For hundreds of years, the French – always light-years ahead when it comes to trendsetting – have been donning la marinière to go about their daily, stylish business.

So what started off this trend? And why does it look so gosh darned good on everyone?

A Stripe is Born

Long before Hollywood stars wore Breton colours on photoshoots, France’s brave mariners were wearing these simple striped shirts. More than 150 years ago, in 1858, an act of parliament demanded that 'tricot rayé', or striped knit, became part of Brittany’s naval uniform.

The law even stated the exact number of stripes to be knitted into the seamen’s shirts: “the body of the shirt will count twenty-one white stripes, each twice as wide as the twenty to twenty-one indigo blue stripes.”

Why 21 stripes? Legend has it that each stripe represented Napoleon’s victories against the British. However, in truth, knitting machines of the time would have found it easier to knit a pattern in this fashion.

 Simple Means Beautiful

We look to the Breton shirt now as a classic; the type of shirt that dresses up a pair of jeans, yet can still look casual and comfy. Without any fussy buttons, zips or pockets, it’s a simple, streamlined garment that’s ready to pull on and go.

There was a reason for this, you know. Navy life can be full of perils, and having buttons, toggles and zips means more opportunity to get snagged or ensnared in rigging, fishing nets and other seafaring hazards.

And those stripes – surely they make it easier to spot an unhappy sailor who’s fallen overboard into the water?

Now we look at the Breton and think "how chic and simple!”, but back then, its simplicity probably saved many lives!

Worn By Outsiders and Fashion Icons

Throughout history, striped clothing once signified an outsider – perhaps a criminal, or a jester, or a wandering minstrel. Once France’s naval seamen were required to wear striped garments, the look was quickly favoured by fishermen too, for its ease and simplicity.

The unintended, simple chicness of the Breton shirt was certainly not lost on one holidaymaker to the Brittany coast. On seeing fishermen wearing cheerful, striped shirts, Coco Chanel was hit with sudden inspiration. What she saw there by the sea inspired her 1917 couture collection – and Breton stripes featured heavily.

While Chanel may not have been the first designer to use Breton stripes in her designs, she was certainly the most well-known, and her androgynous styles based on modified menswear patterns are still worn today by the stylish, the comfortable, and the French.

Famous Stars and Stripes

Since the emergence of Breton stripes in high fashion, stylish celebrities have taken the look to new heights. From Picasso and Jean Cocteau to James Dean and Brigitte Bardot, the list of famous faces seen wearing this humble fisherman’s jersey continues to grow to this day. Perhaps this is why it has stood the test of time as an iconic, and totally understated, fashion statement? 

What do you think? Let us know by commenting below...


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