The Breton Stripe —— A Classic Derived From History

The Breton Stripe —— A Classic Derived From History

History of the Breton stripe

The history of fashion is usually a little unexpected and The Breton is no exception. As with many menswear staples, it comes as no surprise that the Breton stripe also has strong roots in military and working class culture. From the decks of France’s naval fleet to high fashion catwalks and everywhere in between, there is no questioning the ubiquitous status of the Breton shirt.

A 1950s inspired stripe tee made popular by motorcyclists in mid-century America.The Breton stripe was first worn in the 1953 Hollywood film, ‘The Wild One’ starred Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. 

The breton began after an official decree (The 1858 Act of France) introduced The Breton top as the uniform of the French Navy in Brittany. Apparently the stripes made seamen easier to spot if they went overboard. I always find it so interesting that something functional can be the beginning of such a ubiquitous fashion item. 

Originally known as a marinière, or Ricot Rayé, the Breton shirt got its name from the North-Western region of Britanny, where many major naval bases were located. The original knit matelot tops featured a 3/4 sleeve, boat neck and 21 navy stripes to signify each of Napolean Bonaparte’s victories against the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. And thus the nautical associations were born. Stripes were forevermore linked to the sea.

The exact reasoning for this choice of military uniform is unknown, but some say these boldly striped knitted shirts were introduced for their high-visibility which helped crews spot any seamen who had fallen overboard. It is also rumoured that the ‘twenty-one’ stripes were in place to symbolize each of Napoleon’s naval victories against the British. Regardless of any lore, the Breton stripe jumper was easy to spot, comfortable – and warm – a quality most important for seamen braving the choppy seas.

Advancements in textile manufacturing also meant that the woollen Breton shirts could be tubular knit, which made for a durable garment with no side-seams that could be easily laundered without shrinkage. The lack of buttons also meant sailors were less susceptible to snagging themselves on nets or rigging. The Breton shirt was, in essence, a utilitarian masterpiece.

From the Cabins to Coastal Couture

In 1927, after years of representing the working class, seafaring Frenchman, it was Coco Chanel who transformed the nautical stripes for high fashion. The masculine attributes that it lent to the garments were as refreshing as a salty whiff of sea breeze. The trend couldn’t have come at a better time as the world at large became enamoured with the new concept dressing for leisure and sport. The Breton stripe soon became synonymous with lavish Rivera holidays and the privileged upper class who frequented the Mediterranean coastline such as Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor (pictured below).

The Breton top made a triumphant reemergence on the youth subculture scene in the fifties and sixties with the rise of the ‘Beatnik’. James Dean, the original ‘teenager’ and rebel without a cause, and England’s own bad boy Mick Jagger were huge fans of stripes, thus lending a facade of ‘cool’ to those who emulated their style (pictured below). Fine stripes later became a pattern linked with grunge in the nineties furthering the inherit link with music culture. 

Pablo Picasso famously donned Breton stripes, as well as the French poet and director, Jean Cocteau (pictured below). These appearances of the Breton shirt on such avant-garde artists saw the Beatnik subculture of the late-fifties and early-sixties adopt the Breton shirt, as well as the Beret, another typically French piece. 

The Breton Today

The Breton shirt slowly evolved into a fashion staple over the coming decades. Breton stripes have withstood the test of time and still manage to remain a constant trend in menswear. Whether you are drawing upon its nautical, sportswear or rebellious influences, this most egalitarian of tops has something to offer every man.

It's longetivity is in it's simplicity, ease and effortless style. It doesn't try to look stylish, which means it invariably does. A classic breton looks right on everyone, regardless of who you are, your age, colour or gender. 

Everyone should have at least one Breton in their wardrobe. Committed to quality and comfort, we have launched our Breton made of 100% soft cotton. Put the classics in your wardrobe and let the history culture live on forever.

French Sailor Breton Long Sleeve Boat Neck T-Shirt

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