Quick question: How many Breton tops do you own? If you can't actually remember the amount stashed in your drawers, then you're probably not alone. I know I have at least eight in my wardrobe right now, and one of my friends is constantly buying them to the point where I think it's becoming a problem. So why are we so in love with the striped tee? The thing about the classic Breton is that other than giving off that French fashion vibe, it's also incredibly easy to wear. Not only are Bretons chic, but mysteriously, they also manage to flatter everyone: you, your mum, your dad, your brother, even your cat (probably).
While we could credit Alexa Chung, Kate Moss, or even the Duchess of Cambridge with our love for the striped tee, the roots of the Breton go far deeper than that. It's over 200 years old and was made incredibly popular by one of the greatest fashion designers of all time. Intrigued? Keep scrolling for the history of Breton tops, and why we can't stop buying them…
1858: The Birth of the Breton
Back in 1858, the Breton top, also known as the Marinière, became the official uniform of the French navy. A "true" top had 21 white stripes that had to be two centimetres in width and 29 blue stripes that were one centimetre in width, with 14 similar blue stripes down the arm. It was introduced so that men who had gone "overboard" could be identified (jolly). Saint James, located in Le Mont Saint-Michel, became one of the official companies to supply the navy with their uniforms. It is still one of France's (and the world's) leading Breton producers.
An update on the classic French sailor shirt.
Early 1900s: Coco Chanel Repurposes Sailor Stripes
It was during the World War I that Coco Chanel would take trips down to Biarritz (where she opened her first ever shop in 1915) and noticed the sailors' uniforms. She then decided to incorporate the look into her 1917 collection. As ever, Chanel was about breaking boundaries for women when it came to clothing—taking the simple, functional pieces that usually belonged to men's wardrobes and turning them into chic, easy-to-wear pieces for women, for according to Chanel, "Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury."
1950s: The Breton Takes Hollywood
Toward the end of the 1950s—1958, to be exact—thanks to the major movie The Wild One, the Breton stripe made its Hollywood debut. Not only that, but Audrey Hepburn had also been spotted wearing the soon-to-be-iconic top on several occasions, which cemented its chicness further. It was during this time that the top was also co-opted by the Beatnik counter-culture movement, becoming the uniform of the cool kids of New York.
1960s: Pop Culture is Breton-Mad
Not only had Yves Saint Laurent introduced the stripes into his 1962 collection, inspired by the film Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) by Jean-Luc Goddard, the likes of Pablo Picasso and Brigitte Bardot were seen wearing the stripes, too. The blue-and-white top soon became synonymous with Picasso—with the Naval II Breton top by Saint James, being the exact top the artist often wore. Bardot proved that nautical stripes was ideal for the classic Riviera style.
1980s & 1990s: Bretons for Everyone and Stripes on Everything!
Much like Picasso, Jean-Paul Gaultier's personal attire often featured a Breton, as well as it being littered throughout his collections. In a 2014 interview with Dazed, he revealed why he loves stripes so much: "I have a fixation with stripes! When I was a child I used to wear striped tops, and when I was an adolescent I used to wear them because flea markets were in fashion and the tops were cheap." He also said that he was fascinated by the French Navy's style top because of how graphic the design was, and slowly he started incorporating more of it into his collections. He immortalised the Breton by using the print on his Le Male perfume bottle.
Modern Day: No Girl's Wardrobe Is Without One
From the Duchess of Cambridge to Kate Moss as well as Alexa Chung and Olivia Palermo, the striped top has become ubiquitous in the fashion and celebrity world. But it's not just for the A-list. Much like the white shirt, it is a wardrobe staple that will never be replaced. Not only does it come in various styles, but designers and the high street also offer them, meaning everyone can wear one. Whether it's worn on the weekend for brunch or paired with a fabulous coat and skinny jeans and boots, there's nothing that this top can't go with.
But we couldn't talk about stripes without mentioning former J.Crew CEO Jenna Lyons. The designer was credited with championing stripes at the brand but also giving women the confidence (and the outfit ideas) to pair stripes with clashing patterns. Under her watch, Bretons became even more exciting with striped tops coming in fabrics, such as sequins. Finally, the brand even started National Stripes Day for March 31, which is something we can definitely get on board with.
Shop Our Favourite Bretons:
A sweeter take on a very traditional idea.
Classic French colours.
This takes all the fuss out of trying to layer this yourself.
Of course there's a twist to this Margiela version.
For a figure-hugging option, try this.
Worth investing in, right?
Opening Image: @thefrugality
This piece was published at an earlier time and has since been updated.