As the tulips start to bloom in the spring, I always find some version of the Breton striped shirt on the racks of my favorite stores. Every time I see one, I am reminded of Paris and I was curious about its history.
In 1858, the striped, knitted shirt became the uniform for all French Navy seaman in Brittany. The original design had 21 stripes, one for each of Napoleon’s victories. It eventually became a popular article of clothing to wear for fishermen and sailors because the stripes were easily visible in the waves if they were thrown overboard. In 1889, the Saint James company became the main manufacturer and still sells the traditional version today.
In the 1950′s, the Breton sweaters and shirts were fast becoming stylish among the “beatnik” community. Hollywood followed suit and the celebrities began wearing similar versions of the striped shirt. It began to take on different shapes and proportions as fashion houses including Jean Paul Gaultier, Gucci and Balmain created their version of the sweater. Once the big fashion houses started showing the navy and white tops, they became more mainstream and are now sold in J. Crew, The Gap and other American department stores. They can be found in the traditional style and in very stylized versions like dresses, tank tops, with French blue stripes or in red and white stripes. Yes, Parisians do wear them. Typically, they are worn by women and usually under a trench coat or blazer.
I know I’m bringing my Breton stripe top with me the next time I go to Paris. I have just the right black capri pants and khaki trench coat to wear it with. And, now that I know the history behind the shirt, maybe I’ll wear it while I cruise down the Seine. That way if I fall off the boat, they will have no problem finding me!