In 1858, a government decree said that all seamen had to wear a striped top, designed with a 2 cm white stripe followed by a 1 cm blue stripe and so on. In total, there are 21 white stripes and 21 indigo blue stripes. It was stripey so that seamen would be easily identifiable in the water, in case of emergency. It was an extremely practical garment, designed to cover the lower back and not be too loose that it would get caught on anything while at work.
The Breton stripe is synonymous with the Brittany region in France, or ‘La Bretagne’, where the French Navy was based. In the mid-1800s, France was governed by Napoleon and legend has it that the 21 stripes represented the defeats over the English. Before 1858, it was only the officers who wore a uniform. Gradually, because of the practicality of the workwear, the Breton stripe began to be worn by lots of other professions across the Brittany region. Fisherman, harbour sellers, boatsmen – they all began wearing the Breton stripe. In 1923, when Brittany designed their flag, they decided to use the Breton stripe (in black and white, rather than blue and white) as a testament to how intrinsically linked it was to the region.
The Breton tops were seen as a second skin for people who worked on the coast but not remotely fashionable. However, in 1917, people were starting to holiday on the French coasts and seaside fashion started to move away from the heavy, tailored styles that had been previously worn. Coco Chanel introduced the Breton stripe into a collection after a seaside holiday and its fashion icon status was born. It allowed women to wear clothes that were looser and more relaxed and changed the nature of women’s fashion forever.
During the interwar and post-war years, French intellectuals and artists adopted the Breton look. Thirty years after Coco Chanel wore it in the 1920s, it first featured in a Hollywood movie in The Wild One starring Marlon Brando in 1953. James Dean famously wore a Breton top while rebelling against authority in Rebel Without a Cause and Audrey Hepburn wore a version in the 1957 classic, Funny Face. When the French New Wave cinema caused a stir, it did so in a Breton top – worn by actress Jean Seberg in Breathless. Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Brigitte Bardot were all frequently caught on camera wearing the Breton top; it had officially arrived as the epitome of French cool.
While the Breton look couldn’t be called cutting edge anymore, it has developed into a sophisticated tried and tested French look. Jean Paul Gaultier elevated the Breton stripe into evening wear in the 1980s and since then, it has become a ‘go-to’ look for tailored elegance when needed, usually paired with a blazer and pumps, à la Kate Middleton. Karl Lagerfeld designed the French football team a kit using the Breton stripe and the chains Saint James and Petit Bateau are still selling the French nautical theme centuries later as a synonym for old-fashioned French values and great tailoring. The Breton stripe has come a long, long way since its humble beginnings.