The History of Breton Stripes
“We don’t know the real story behind stripes, that’s why there are so many myths surrounding it,” said Delphine Allannic-Costa, co-curator of the Les Marins Font la Mode (Sailors Make Fashion) exhibition held at the Musée National de la Marine in Paris, which juxtaposed sailor’s uniforms with fashion creations by the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier.
And she’s not exaggerating. A core part of the Chinti and Parker DNA, Breton stripes are a utilitarian-cool classic that has been a staple for generations of style icons from Pablo Picasso to Audrey Hepburn. Let’s take a look at some of the stories, as well as the many movers and shakers that got caught up in the history of stripes.
The origins of the striped sailor jersey were traced all the way back to the late 18th century, with early versions of the garment found on engravings from the Brittany and Normandy regions depicting fishermen. The first written proof dates back to 1855, in the form of a bulletin listing the contents of a sailor’s bag.
Recorded in March 1858 as the official undergarment of the French Navy, the original wool-knit naval jersey featured a pattern of 21 white stripes and 20–21 blue stripes with 15 white stripes and 14–15 blue stripes on the sleeves. An old tale from Brittany attributes each of the 21 stripes to the naval victories of Napoleon’s fleet against the British. In Brittany it is also noted that onion merchants, leaving from Brittany to sell their goods in England, wore a very distinctive item of clothing that made them recognisable from a distance.
Within a few decades, several colour variants appeared, including red, and white on solid colours. To date, in the French Navy, young recruits wear a striped t-shirt during their onboard training period.
Enter the Jazz Age. British fashion historian Amber Butchart, author of Nautical Chic, says that key influencers of the trend included wealthy US expats Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose Riviera home, Villa America, was the place to be for the Jazz Age social set. In fact, it was Gerald and Sara that inspired the main characters in their friend F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. “There’s an account of Gerald Murphy going to Marseille to get supplies for his house and coming back with a load of these striped tops, basically undershirts, that he’d picked up in a boat supply shop and distributing them to his guests,” says Butchart.
Then, the striped sailor top really went more mainstream in the late 1940s. Firstly in the jazz clubs of Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood where artists and writers and intellectuals often wore authentic striped sailor jerseys. (Noted for your next visit to Cafe de Flore.) And secondly in the South of France, with the growth of the so-called “mode Riviera”, and Brigitte Bardot attending one of the first editions of the Cannes Film Festival in a red version of the striped sailor jersey.
Film stars also helped fuel the popularity of stripes, from Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) to Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960). High-fashion soon caught on, with Yves Saint Laurent reinterpreting the marinière in his first collection (Spring/Summer 1962).
Which brings us right up to now. Simply put, sailor stripes continue to inspire everyone who loves easy, classic, frills-free style. We recreate Breton stripes each season on jersey and knitwear, adding unexpected twists and trims. For Spring/Summer '17, we did a hard nod to classic sailor style, adding a red stripe and trim to our merino stripe story. Here's to being part of the legacy.