The Breton-stripe top is quintessentially French and, like most things from France, it’s cool, chic and perennially stylish. Its ability to transform even the simplest ensemble into a 'fit de triomphe means this maritime classic has garnered cult status well beyond sailors and seafolk. Here's the story behind la République's most famous fashion export.
STYLE AND CULTURE
CULT ITEM: BRETON-STRIPE TOP
By Kasia Hastings, 21 April 2018
The Breton has been making sartorial waves since its inception in Brittany (or Bretagne) in 1858. In fact, it was integrated into the national naval uniform to make sailors who found themselves floating overboard more visible in the waves. Originally in knitted or cotton form, each of its traditional 21 stripes is said to mark one of Napoleon’s famous victories.
Functionally fashionable, it was quickly adopted by seafarers, locals and other French folk, including Coco Chanel. The designer was so taken with the style that she included it in Chanel’s 1917 nautical-inspired collection, permanently positioning it in the couture wardrobes of the Paris elite.
The trend thrived in France throughout the 20s and 30s, and by the 50s it had broken into Hollywood with the help of style icons like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Dean’s roguish reputation toughened up the Breton and cemented it as a menswear classic.
Feeling like Pablo
It was also embraced by the art world, with Pablo Picasso making it his vêtement of choice. In 60s New York, artist Andy Warhol added an alternative edge, wearing his with a thin stripe and black skinny jeans. And later in the 70s, the print was popularised once again by that most stylish of rockers – Mick Jagger.
Breton’s biggest fan
Perhaps no man has ever loved a Breton more than French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who hasn’t been seen without one since the early 90s. His penchant for (or unhealthy obsession with) the print has seen him pay homage to the style in countless collections and immortalise it on his iconic Le Male aftershave bottle.
While the essential components have remained the same, the way we wear the shirt has continued to change. With the 90s came the emergence of the grunge aesthetic which saw the T-shirt styled with a lightweight cardigan or a leather jacket, ripped jeans and sturdy boots. This street styler has made the look appropriate for spring by going for off-white jeans worn with a westernwear belt.
The Breton tee has been refreshed for a new generation and is now a key piece for streetwear labels like Neighborhood, Norse Projects and Unused. See how this streetwear aficionado rocks his updated Guess Jeans version, choosing to style his multicoloured T-shirt with a white Nike coach jacket and a relaxed pair of jeans.