Breton stripes

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The Breton stripe was first introduced by French Law in 1858 to locate overboard sailors.[1]


French sailors in the Breton top

The striped breton shirt as we know it today came into being shortly following the 27th March, 1858 Act of France[3] which introduced the navy and white striped knitted shirt as the uniform for all French navy seaman in Brittany[4][5][6][7].[8] The shirt was originally known as marinière or matelot.[9] The original design featured 21 stripes, one for each of Napolean's victories.[10][11]

Since 1889, the garment was manufactured by Bretagne, Tricots Saint James in wool and cotton for sailors. It then become popular with breton workers, for its ease of wear and practicality.

The official striped navy and white shirt became more generally a working mariner garment as it was picked up by men of the sea; seafairers and sailors across the region of Northern France. The distinctive block pattern of stripes on the French striped shirt made them easier to spot in the waves. The garment usually had a boat neckline.[12]

The Saint James Binic II sweater introduced in 1889 in Normandy.

The Saint James Binic II sweater was released by Saint James in 1889 in lower Normandy.[13]

In the 1950s and 60s the shirt was again popularized by the Beatnik community and alternative culture.[14]


Inspired by sailors, after a visit to the French coast,[15] Coco Chanel introduced the design to the fashion world[16] through her nautical collection in 1917.[17] The Breton top became a symbol of haute-bourgeois loveliness during the pre-war Riviera years.

The introduction of this garment from the traditional working class to female fashion, was a breakaway from the heavily corseted belle epoque fashion of the time.[18] The introduction of more casual wear to women's fashion was required at the time due to the increase in popularity of seaside destinations, like Saint Tropez. Coco Chanel designed the piece to be paired the shirt with long flared trousers.[19] As the style adapted during the 1930s, the upper class would pair the top with a cravat, blazer and shorts.[20]

The shirt was then made popular by Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Brigitte Bardot[21], Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Audrey Hepburn[22][23], James Dean and Jean Seberg.[24]

The design is now synonymous with chic Parisian style.[25] The shirt has been recreated in collections by fashion houses like, Balmain, Gucci, Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier, who has become an ambassador of sorts. He requires his press team to wear a version during his runway shows.[26] The designer featured the style heavily in his work, most notably his male perfume bottle, Le Male which launched in 1993, is clad in a breton T-shirt.[27]

The top is now worn by the likes of Kate Moss, Olivia Palermo and Alexa Chung.[28]

In Film

The Breton top was first worn in Hollywood in the film, The Wild One (1953) starring Marlon Brando's.[29] His co-star Lee Marvin wore a breton striped style t-shirt. His character was seen as the darker more dangerous of the pair.

The film famously inspired the biker, Frank Sadilek, who drove to Hollywood to purchase his own striped T-shirt.[30] Frank later become the president of the Hell's Angels San Francisco chapter from 1955-1962. His typical uniform of gold earring, clip-on nose ring and worn out Breton striped top influenced the biker fashion at the time.[31]

James Dean[32] wore the Breton striped top in the movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955).[33]

During the 1950s Hollywood costume designer, Edith Head, paid homage to the Breton in the film To Catch a Thief (1955), the character played by Cary Grant wore a breton-style T-shirt with a white polka-dot cravat.[34]

In the 1956 film Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn was seen wearing a black turtleneck sweater, ski pants and a breton top[35]. The scene was a recreation of the typical Paris cellar clubs from the 1950s.

In 1965, Andy Warhol filmed Kitchen starring Edie Sedgwick, who is dressed in the trademark breton top and black tights. The outfit is synymous with Warhol's style throughout the 60s.



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