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The History of The Breton Shirt

Whitney Charbonneau

Timelessness is a priority in French style, and the navy and white striped pullover is exemplary of how an item of clothing, when made well, can last forever and trump trends. Origins of this timeless style, however, are not in the fashion capital of the world. It was not the Parisians, but rather the Bretons who wore the nautical stripe first in Bretagne.

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Saint Malo in Brittany

Bretagne, Brittany, is the peninsular region in northwest France surrounded by the Atlantic. Its nautical history extends throughout centuries, and remains in the coastal towns where gorgeous fishing ports and marinas are teeming with boats and yachts of all sizes. Sailing is an important part of the culture, both for the economy and recreation. Some of the world’s most famous yacht races like the Route du Rhum and Jules Verne Trophy depart from sailing destinations in Brittany, and the region has produced yacht-racing legends in the world like Olivier de Kersauson and Éric Tabarly.

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Audrey Hepburn in her Breton stripe shirt

The Breton Shirt

The shirt we now consider a staple, authentically called by many designers the “Breton” stripe, was originally worn by those who frequented the seas along Brittany. The blue and white striped cotton pullovers were ideal to combat the weather at sea because of their tightly stitched cotton. Eventually, the French navy declared the striped “tricot” as their official uniform in 1858. It is said that there was a belief among the seamen that the stripes could help with spotting men who had fallen overboard.

Coco Chanel

In 1917, Coco Chanel was photographed in the Breton stripe shirt, catapulting the design to high fashion. The pull became more widely known as french with the help of famous French new wave director Jean Luc Godard, as heroines played by Brigitte Bardot and Jean Seberg sported the Breton stripe in his iconic films. Audrey Hepburn and James Dean were shot wearing the timeless style, which has remained a classic in Hollywood. The shirt is universally loved.

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James Dean in his Breton pullover

Today, it is remarkable that the original cotton Breton stripe pullover remains an item to which men and women of all generations gravitate. It is almost like grabbing your favorite pair of jeans- it can’t fail you.

Wandering the streets of Saint Malo in Brittany, you will find that store fronts are packed with the Breton stripe. It has become a classic for those beyond Brittany, and well beyond the borders of France. The history of the Breton stripe shirt in modern fashion echoes the way that tradition and modernity come together to create something beautiful and beloved, like the towns of Brittany.