The Classic Enduring Style of The Breton Top

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Sea-faring history has always influenced fashion - and no object more so than the Breton Top. But where did the history of the famous stripes begin?

Known today as a marker of chic and a stalwart of any Jean-Paul Gaultier collection, the striped Breton top was originally a knitted fishing shirt, designed to be worn for extra warmth.

The lightness of the top and the distinct stripes also meant that, were anyone to fall overboard, they would be easy to spot in the water.

Stripes were a popular design choice in the navy during the 18th Century, because of this factor, in fact the striped undershirt became part of the official French naval uniform in 1858. This is also partly where the name ‘Breton’ comes from - many of the sailors in the French Navy were from Brittany. However, the shirt in its uniform incarnation was known as the ‘tricot rayé’, meaning striped knit.

By the end of the century, knitted stripes were also a popular choice for swimwear across Europe.

The transition from occupational clothing to high fashion is often credited to designer Coco Chanel. Her early designs were based on the clothing of sailors, and she was well known for her love of the Breton.

However, it was an American couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, who changed the game and successfully brought the striped top to the masses. They were friends of American composer Cole Porter, and they visited him in the French Riviera during1922, and liked it so much that they set up home there the following year.

It was whilst living there that Gerald took a trip to Marseille for some boat supplies, and returned with the tricot rayé for his guests – who happened to include artists, authors and trendsetters such as Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

It was from here, the popularity of the striped shirt as a fashion piece was soon seen to spread like wildfire.

But, getting back to Coco Chanel, the unintended, simple chicness of the Breton shirt was certainly not lost on this holidaymaker to the Brittany coast. On seeing fishermen wearing cheerful, striped shirts, Coco was hit with sudden inspiration. What she saw there by the sea inspired her 1917 couture collection – and Breton stripes featured heavily.

While Chanel may not have been the first designer to use Breton stripes in her designs, she was certainly the most well-known, and her androgynous styles based on modified menswear patterns are still worn today by the stylish, the comfortable, and the French.

Since the emergence of Breton stripes in high fashion, stylish celebrities have taken the look to new heights. From Picasso and Jean Cocteau to James Dean and Brigitte Bardot, the list of famous faces seen wearing this humble fisherman’s jersey continues to grow to this day.

Style tribes such as Beatniks, and Mods have often been seen to wear the Breton stripe tops. Every summer season there is always a nautical element in many a designers collection. Breton stripes have become a casual staple in many a stylish person’s wardrobe.

One of my personal favourites is a Breton shirt by Armour Lux, and as the brand sates,

“The Breton shirt has become a signifier for a nonchalant, cool and effortless lifestyle – values that are reflected in the ethos of Armor Lux.”

It is this nonchalant cool that makes the top timeless, and so appealing.

In more recent times there are many brands that have returned to this iconic look, and it is often seen both with high Street brands, and the more high end brands.

Another thing that makes a Breton stripe top stand out is the inclusion of a boat neck. It is said the wide, plain neck was said to facilitate quick removal if a sailor were to fall overboard. The style was adopted by the Russians and other navies in the following years. When Russian sailors adopted them, So, the Russian Navy adopted the style. Eventually, the Russian forces used them as undershirts for each part of the naval forces. They differentiated between Navy and Naval infantry for example by having different coloured stripes The Navy for The Navy, Black stripes for the infantry. Essentially tops are the same as the French versions, or at least very similar. The Russian version is called a Telnyashka. The aforementioned boat neck also makes Breton tops look cooler, and easily differentiates it from a normal knitted top or a simple T-shirt.

The Classic Enduring Style of The Breton Top 7

Capirari, did there own version of this wonderful casual style last summer, and it’s classic look was quickly snapped up by style conscious aficionados, such as Paul Weller. It’s structure putting a modern twist on the look that many people have enjoyed for many years.

I doubt the Breton top will ever go out of favour. I know that for me, it is a look that is clean and sharp. Teaming it with the right garments, always works.

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Read 659 times Last modified on Tuesday, 07 July 2020 19:42
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