It is said that one evening in Deauville, in 1917, fashion designer Coco Chanel was out walking on the beach with her lover and backer, Arthur “Le Boy” Capel, when she had one of her greatest moments of inspiration. Borrowing his jersey sweater to shield herself from the evening chill, she realised that, with a few snips of her cutter’s scissors, it could be transformed into a chic, simple woman’s top. And so the Breton shirt as we know it was born.
The Breton stripe originates from Brittany (‘Bretagne’ in French) on the North West coast of France. The navy and white knitted shirt was made the uniform of the French navy. As their prescribed uniform, the style of the top was crafted for practicality – the length should cover the lower back of the seafarer, and the top was not too loose, so as not to get caught on anything during work.
The distinctive striped pattern made them unmistakable to spot on the waves in emergencies. However, the striped pattern is so closely linked with Brittany that their flag, designed in 1923, also contains the Breton stripe pattern, although in black and white rather than navy blue and white. The nine horizontal stripes represent the traditional Brittany dioceses; on the shirts, they’re said to represent the number of Napoleon’s victories over the British.
The style would spread in the 1920s and 30s, as seaside destination holidays like St Tropez were becoming popular, and a more casual style was ideal. This look was spearheaded by Chanel, who brought a new freedom to women;s fashion by breaking away from the more heavily fitted styles. Post war, the Breton shirt would become associated with the Boho scene around St Germain des Pres, Juliette Greco and the Existentialists. Wearing one made you look sexy and intellectual – an irresistible combo. Meanwhile, in the South of France, Picasso was never photographed without one. The Breton stripe was also gaining international legs and conquering the States, with such high-profile devotees as James Dean (in Rebel Without a Cause) and Audrey Hepburn.
It’s impossible to think of the 60s and not think of the Breton shirt – especially around Andy Warhol and the Factory scene. Both Warhol and the house band, The Velvet Underground, would sport the stripe, though it’s Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick who would most rock the look and be forever associated with the shirt.
Today, no one has done more to popularise the Breton shirt than Jean Paul Gaultier. While the designer himself is iconic in his trademark Breton striped top and kilt, Gaultier even insists that his press team wear stripes during their runway shows. In 2010 he even redesigned the former apartment of famed French architect Jacque Carlu to feature signature nautical stripes all over his apartment.
From its humble beginnings as a sailor’s top, the Breton shirt has grown to be synonymous with nonchalant French style- a true style classic, that will always grant you cred de la rue.