The Breton Stripe is a chic fashion classic, a must-have in any stylish wardrobe, and recognizably French. But, like many fashion icons — denim jeans, the trench coat — it has utilitarian origins. This article will uncover the Breton Stripe's military beginnings and tell how it moved into the mainstream.
The Breton Stripe is a simple garment: a white top with dark blue stripes, sleeves, a snug fit, and a round neckline. As the name suggests, it originates from the Brittany region of France, in the northwest of the country. It's traditionally made from sheep's wool on a circular loom and is warm even when wet--hence its suitability as a naval garment.
In 1858, the French Navy decreed that what we now call the Breton Stripe would be the official undergarment of sailors. Prior to that, naval officers tended to wear the shirt, but after this decree, it moved down the ranks to become a sailor's uniform. The garment had 21 stripes, which had both a symbolic and practical purpose: there was one stripe for each of Napoleon Bonaparte's victories, and they also made it easy to spot sailors who had fallen overboard.
For more than half a century, the Breton Stripe's popularity spread beyond the Navy and among workers — to the fishermen in northern France and onion sellers who traded in and around the ports of Brittany. Fashion historians have noted that stripes on clothing have, throughout history, been associated with social misfits and outcasts: think, prisoners or jesters. While sailors who wore the Breton Stripe weren't misfits per se, they were not highly respected by upper-class society and were considered rough manual laborers.
But, the 20th century was a time of huge upheaval around the world, with political and social movements demanding changes to the old hierarchies. The Breton Stripe entered the upper echelons of style in 1917. This date can be pinpointed so specifically because it was the year that iconic fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel included a Breton Stripe-inspired garment in her couture collection. Her take on the Breton Stripe pushed women's clothing to become more androgynous and casual. From here, the Breton Stripe rose through the social and fashion ranks in a way that would surely have surprised the sailors of the 19th century.
In the post-war years of the 1950s and '60s, when youth culture blossomed like never before, the Breton Stripe became associated with counter-cultural fashion. Women's skirts were getting shorter, men were ditching the suit and tie and experimenting with colors and patterns, and the Breton Stripe was part of the mix. French New Wave cinema kept French chic cool on the global stage, and the Breton Stripe was as much of a uniform for young French actresses as it had been for 19th-century sailors.
Nowadays, the humble Breton Stripe shirt has been adapted in many ways and has shed its working-class connotations. The dark blue stripe on white is still popular, although red or light blue stripes, or white stripes on a dark blue background, are also common.
From naval uniform to high fashion statement to versatile wardrobe staple, the Breton Stripe is as strikingly French now as it always was. It's a simple garment with a complex history that will, no doubt, continue to evolve.