Stars in stripes … why the classic Breton top is back in vogue
Once favoured by stars ranging from Pablo Picasso to Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando to Madonna, Breton tops – with their statement stripes and easy shape – are about to enjoy a new fashion moment.
Touted by stylish insiders as one of the transition items to take us from working from home to emerging out into the world, the familiar stripes have been spotted recently on the Duchess of Cambridge, Anna Wintour and actress Jennifer Garner.
Affordable brands including Boden and Seasalt number the top among their bestsellers, while high-fashion labels Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Celine also featured Bretons in their latest collections.
Meanwhile, a sailor-themed Jean-Paul Gaultier collection has just been launched. Gaultier, erstwhile enfant terrible of the fashion industry, is indelibly linked to the stripy top which he wore, often with a kilt, while presenting the 90s late-night TV show Eurotrash. He was also photographed in the top by French masters of kitsch Pierre et Gilles.
Although Gaultier retired last year, his brand is still going strong. The label’s new 75-piece collection – created by young talents including Paloma Spain, Ottolinger and Marvin M’Toumo – is likely to attract a Gen Z audience, with cropped and mesh-side-panelled versions of the classic.
As the name suggests, the Breton, sometimes also called la marinière, is quintessentially French.
In 1858, the striped shirt became the official uniform of the French navy. The design featured 21 stripes, which were said to make it easier to spot sailors who had fallen overboard.
The first shirts were made by the label Saint James – named after the village on Mont-Saint-Michel bay, on the border of Normandy and Brittany – which has provided dyed and weaved wool to hosiery shops for centuries. Coco Chanel is credited for elevating the Breton from a uniform to a fashion item.
However, Amber Butchart, author of Nautical Chic, a history of maritime fashion, says Chanel’s role “tends to be hugely overstated in this story”. The author traces its fashion status back to Sara and Gerald Murphy, bohemian friends of F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald who lived on the Côte d’Azur in the 20s.
“Gerald Murphy, an American artist, took a shopping trip to Marseille to get supplies for his boat,” Butchart says. “He returned with striped marinière tops for himself and his guests, kickstarting a trend that continues to this day.” Butchart says the Breton is distinct because it “has become a marker of classic French chic but can still garner countercultural associations.
“It remains one of the few fashion staples that can look both bourgeois and bohemian, depending on how it’s worn – or who’s wearing it.”
In the mid-noughties Kate Moss and Alexa Chung made them part of their wardrobe, with Saint James the favoured brand.
The announcement, earlier this month, that the sailing shop Arthur Beale in London’s Covent Garden was closing after 500 years prompted mourning on Instagram.
A leading outlet for Saint James Breton tops and accessories, it made its name supplying goods to sailors and adventurers. Famously, it provided ropes to Tenzing Norgay and Eric Shipton for their first Everest expedition in 1935; a letter signed by the latter forms part of the Beale archive.
Purists, however, will be pleased to know that soon they will be able buy the top from the French navy itself, which will sell its clothing as a brand for the first time through its own line, Marine National 1626 – referencing the year Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII, established the French navy.
As well as the classic Breton tops, the collection will feature a “young, chic and dynamic” range of bags made of recycled sails, according to Admiral Pierre Vandier, the French navy’s chief of staff. Profits will go towards improving the working conditions of sailors.