Style / May 2017

How The Breton Shirt Earned Its Stripes

The Rake shines a light on a garment that has transcended time, sailed through changes in fashion, has adorned some of the most rakish icons of the past, and continues to influence luxury menswear today.

Brigitte Bardot on a Ferrari, 1960.

There are few garments in circulation today that have sailed through time and remained as current as the Breton - or marinière - pullover shirt. To have such timeless clout and the ability to  outlast changes in fashion, the Breton striped shirt — or in fact any garment — needed to be designed with function and purpose in mind. After all, many articles of clothing we now take for granted and often wear had this initial design philosophy. For instance the safari shirt — designed to be practical with its storage and unrestricted design — and denim jeans — road tested on gold miners and cowboys — are arguably two of the most ubiquitous garments ever created. Yet the Breton’s story is somewhat more aquatic, let’s say.

The Breton’s story starts in 1858 with The Act Of France, whereby the French navy introduced a white pullover with indigo blue horizontal stripes made from cotton as its official uniform. Due to its design, when seamen fell overboard they were easier to spot due to the contrast of the indigo stripes against the white main body of the shirt. The shirt was also designed with three-quarter length sleeves and a boat neckline — a low cut hem around the neck — so that it could be easily removed and waved around, thus making the lost sailor easy to spot. Made by independent tailors in Bretagne, a cottage industry of sorts, the Breton originally had twenty-one stripes: a nod to Napoleon’s twenty-one naval victories over the English. As the Act states: “The body shall have 21 white stripes, each twice as wide as the 20 or 21 navy blue stripes.” However, now a striped cotton shirt — regardless of thickness and number of stripes plus the colour of them (within reason, of course) — is referred to as a Breton shirt. Since, it has become a universal garment and a signifier of effortless French style. However, it’s also become much more.

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Contributor

Benedict Browne

Benedict is The Rake's Associate Style Editor.