FASHION NEWS

What is it about Breton tops?

Fashion trends come and go – but style classics stick around. Amber Butchart looks at our enduring love for Breton stripes

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By Amber Butchart on

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Riddle me this: how many striped Breton tops do you have in your wardrobe? Under five? Double figures? Couldn’t even count them? I’m guessing that the answer is in the multiples. The truth is that we’re a nation of Breton fanatics, whether that means you pack a couple for an escape to the seaside, or they religiously make up your wardrobe staples. Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harpers Bazaar UK, knows a thing or two about classic dressing. The Breton has become her trademark look, an item that forms a trusted part of her sartorial uniform. She explains, “I've always loved wearing a Breton top, ever since I went on a French exchange as a 15-year-old teenager to Brittany. They go with almost anything – jeans, cropped white trousers, a cotton skirt – and they always cheer me up.” It’s this versatility that keeps us reaching for the Breton, like Depeche Mode we just can’t get enough. As a fashion historian, the trajectory of this item fascinates me. How did it travel from the workwear of fishermen on the French coast to an essential item for the world’s fashion editors?

To start with, stripes haven’t always been the ultimate arbiter of cool. In his book, The Devil's Cloth: A History Of Stripes, French professor and symbology expert Michel Pastoureau explored the somewhat diabolic association of stripes throughout the medieval Western world. He found that it was only outcasts – from heretics to lepers, hangmen and (of course) prostitutes – that were depicted in stripes in medieval images and literature. Even Judas, the ultimate traitor, was often rendered in striped garb. Pastoureau’s theory links this to a Biblical verse from Leviticus, ambiguously translated as, “You will not wear upon yourself a garment that is made of two.”

Luckily for us, the demonic obsession with stripes was forgotten, and they soon transitioned into the fashionable wardrobe. Fads for striped hose (ie stockings) went in and out of favour for men of fashion from the 17th century until full trousers took the place of leg-revealing breeches, banishing hosiery for men until it was resurrected very recently. For fisherman and sailors, stripes had the very practical advantage of being conspicuous if you fell overboard, a kind of early high-vis for life on the ocean waves.

Stripes have a long association with the sea. From 17th-century Dutch whaling caps to early 19th-century mezzotints, the stripy side of seafaring is evident in museums and galleries across Europe. The Breton top, as we know it, started life as a humble fishing undershirt, an extra knitted layer that conserved much-needed heat. Our conception of stripes as an eternal marker of Gallic chic was strengthened when the undershirt was adopted by the French navy in 1858. Meticulous uniform regulations described the knitted cotton jersey “marinière” (officially called the “tricot rayé”), listing the exact number and precise width of stripes that were allowed. The 21 stripes were said to represent Napoleon’s naval victories, but unfortunately this is urban (or should that be maritime) myth. By the late 19th century, stripes were a popular option for swimwear and promenade outfits (and later, of course, deckchairs), a defining feature of seaside style on beaches across Europe. 

As with so many trends (suntanning springs to mind), we have the French Riviera to thank for the Breton’s ascent into the world of fashion. Saint Tropez, formerly a fishing village, became the first artist’s retreat on the Côte d'Azur at the end of the 19th century, establishing a tradition that would continue along the Mediterranean, as creative personalities gradually overtook the aristocracy in social influence. 1923 was a significant year in the evolution of seaside style, as Gerald Murphy, an American artist, took a shopping trip to Marseille to get supplies for his boat. He returned with striped marinière tops for himself and his guests, kickstarting a trend that continues to this day. Gerald and his wife, Sara (immortalised in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night and the characters at the heart of Liza Klaussmann's Villa America), had first visited the Cap d’Antibes the previous year as guests of Cole Porter. (Warning: impending life-envy ahead.) They liked it so much they returned and set up home, creating a summer “season” and welcoming various shining lights of the Modernist movement into their villa.

The Murphy's guests read like a Who’s Who of the 1920s art and literary worlds (not to mention my ideal dinner party line-up), from Man Ray and Dorothy Parker to Stravinsky, Picasso and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As well as great taste in friends, the Murphys had a finely attuned aesthetic sense. They were early adopters of Art Deco for the interior of their Riviera home and they were both known for their innovative style. Sara’s obsession with tanning and wearing pearls to the beach foreshadowed Chanel, and Gerald had won the “best dressed” award while at Yale. With Gerald championing the striped top as a style choice among his influential friends, its popularity quickly spread.

If the 1920s were the decade when the Breton crossed from workwear to stylish casual dress, the 1930s saw it cemented as a fashion classic. As with most trends – or enduring styles – the initial uptake by a fashionable few soon leads to mass-market adoption. So it’s telling that a 1931 British Vogue article characterised the dress of future-fashion-editor Diana Vreeland and her husband as “gay and unconventional” when he was photographed wearing a striped top on holiday in Tunisia. The following year, it was given the fashion stamp of approval with a French Vogue cover featuring an illustration of a Chanel-like figure clad in stripes at the Riviera. Chanel herself was a key proponent of the style and she was photographed wearing a striped top at her Riviera home in 1930. She had been adopting men’s workwear into women’s fashion since her earliest clothing designs in 1913, which were inspired by the smocks of Normandy fishermen. Jersey was also given a helping hand by Chanel, who moved it out of the realm of underwear and into the world of high style. 

It also helped that the 1920s and 30s saw huge trends for outdoor exercise. Keeping fit was promoted as part of a healthy lifestyle, and swimming and sun worship were popularised by glamorous Hollywood stars. An exhibition, running at the Fashion And Textile Museum in London until 30 August, charts our love affair with stylish recreation by the sea. Riviera Style: Resort and Swimwear Since 1900 focuses on fashion at its most fun, from the British seaside to the Côte d’Azur and California, covering 100 years of leisure. The show includes two striped men’s shirts from the late 1950s that resemble updated versions of the Breton. One, from trailblazing menswear store Vince, which was just off Carnaby Street, was originally modelled by a dashing young Sean Connery. Dr Christine Boydell, curator of the exhibition, agrees that stripes are a persistent feature of our wardrobes. She tells me, “Something about the combination of a coloured stripe with a white one creates a clean and crisp look that will always endure.” Arguably it’s the long-running association with coastal life – and specifically leisure time – that has earned stripes a perennial place in our wardrobes. Why wouldn't we always want to dress like we’re on holiday?

Worn by everyone from Patti Smith to Kate Middleton, the Breton top is unique in that it's become a marker of classic French chic but still has countercultural associations

And so back to the Breton’s meteoric rise. When you think of Picasso, you probably picture him in a classic Breton. Despite having countless more-than-passable beaches in his native Spain, he fell in love with life at the French coast and spent seven years working in a studio in Vallauris on the Côte d’Azur from 1948, which is where he really made the striped top his own. He had previously immortalised the jersey in his composition Night Fishing At Antibes’ (1939) and became synonymous with the style. (I like to think that his preference for the clothes of working men reflected his interest in Communism, but maybe he just really liked stripes.) Artists and writers from Ernest Hemingway to Francis Picabia and Jackson Pollock also adopted the striped top as their bohemian outfit of choice. 

The association with the art world meant that stripes were garnering a vaguely countercultural air, which was picked up by Hollywood in a number of Beatnik movies. Tinsel Town rebels like James Dean were shot in stripes, and in France Brigitte Bardot was doing more than her fair share of popularising the national style. In 1960, Jean Seberg in Breathless showed the world that nothing epitomised French chic like boat-neck stripes, and later in the decade Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick lent it an air of Manhattan cool. Joan Baez sported one at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1968, while Anna Karina also contributed Nouvelle Vague elegance. Already we’re racking up an impossibly cool list of stripe devotees. And this subversive air wasn’t limited to postwar subcultures and New Wave ingenues, as striped blue and white undershirts had also been worn by Les Apaches, a group of sartorially obsessed gangsters in early 20th-century Paris. Imagine Peaky Blinders, but in stripes. 

YSL smock dress in sequins from 1966
 

Sonia Rykiel summer catwalk from 1992

 

The 1960s were a triumphant decade for stripes in the Parisian fashion industry. In his January 1966 couture collection (the same collection that popularised the pea coat and sailor trousers), Yves Saint Laurent rendered smocks and dresses in sequin nautical stripes. His interest in nautical motifs stretched back to his debut collection four years earlier. The same decade Sonia Rykiel created her first knitwear designs – the “poor boy” sweaters – and stripes soon became indelibly woven into her brand identity. Jean Paul Gaultier regularly reinvents the nautical stripe, and often appears in his signature marinière top. He is well-known for pushing the camp dial up to 11 with his sailor styles, but it’s also the timelessness of the Breton top that appeals. As he said in the catalogue to his recent retrospective, “I’ve always loved the graphic and architectural aspect of stripes... They go with everything, never go out of style and probably never will.” 

Worn by everyone from Patti Smith to The Ramones, Kurt Cobain to Kate Middleton, the Breton top is somewhat unique in that is has become a marker of classic French chic but can still garner countercultural associations. Along with other unisex items that originated in workwear, like jeans and the leather biker jacket, it remains one of the few fashion staples that can look both bourgeois and bohemian, which is part of the reason we love it so much. It works for whichever version of us we want to project that day. While variants of the Breton top can be found at every level of the fashion chain, from the high street to the catwalk, it’s good to support traditional manufacturers when you can.

Armor Lux began as an underwear and hosiery supplier in Brittany in 1938, and expanded into clothing collections in 1970. They continue to make their Breton tops inhouse, from the fabric to the fully formed garment, and they also supply the French navy. Marco Petrucci, export manager at Armor Lux, credits Parisian couturiers with their ongoing appeal. He explained, “Despite the fact that the striped shirt can be found everywhere it is really linked to French ‘chic’ because fashion icons like Chanel and later of course Jean-Paul Gaultier have worn it.” Perhaps it’s the ultimate example of fashion bubbling up from the street (or beach), then trickling down again from the catwalk. It paradoxically represents both democratic fashion and elite style. 

Whether you pair yours with dungarees or slinky silk tuxedo pants, the ultimate key, says Justine Picardie, is in your attitude. “There's something so effortless and easy about a striped top, and the right one should also reflect the spirit of chic insouciance of the woman who first made them famous: Coco Chanel. Hence I follow Chanel's lead in this (as in other matters of style): wear them with confidence, but without trying too hard.” Whatever else you wear this summer, either in town or on beaches from Blackpool to Barbados, be ready to make a splash in stripes. 

Nautical Chic  by Amber Butchart is out now, published by Thames & Hudson. A Nautical Chic display, curated by Amber, will feature as part of Riviera Style at the Fashion And Textile Museum

@AmberButchart

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