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How Did The Evolution of French Naval Uniforms Influence Fashion?

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November 1, 2023

Maritime history has always left its mark on fashion, with one of the most iconic examples being the Breton Top. But what's the story behind those famous stripes?

The History of the Breton Stripe

Today, the striped Breton top is synonymous with elegance and is a staple in collections by designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier. However, its origins lie in a practical, knitted fishing shirt designed for warmth.

The lightweight fabric and distinctive stripes served a dual purpose; they kept fishermen warm and made them easily visible if they fell overboard.

Stripes were a popular choice in naval attire, with 18th-century seamen sporting vertically striped trousers. Even Admiral Nelson had a striped pair of socks in the National Maritime Museum's collection. The striped undershirt became part of the official French naval uniform in 1858. This is how it acquired the name 'Breton' since many sailors hailed from Brittany. However, in its uniform form, it was known as the 'tricot rayé,' meaning striped knit.

By the end of the century, knitted stripes had become a popular choice for swimwear all across Europe.

The Breton Top: From Naval Uniform to Fashion Icon

The transition from workwear to high fashion is often credited to the legendary Coco Chanel, known for her love of the Breton.

Yet, it was an American couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, who played a pivotal role in making the striped top a fashion sensation. Friends of Cole Porter, they moved to the French Riviera in 1922 and quickly fell in love with the region.

During a trip to Marseille for boat supplies, Gerald returned with tricot rayé shirts for his illustrious guests, including Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

From there, the popularity of the striped shirt as a fashion statement skyrocketed. Chanel herself was photographed wearing one the following year at a Ballets Russes rehearsal.

Since then, the striped T-shirt has become an enduring favorite in popular culture, donned by the likes of Picasso, Kurt Cobain, and the Duchess of Cambridge.

Saint James, a company that has long supplied the French Navy with uniforms, now ranks among the world's leading Breton producers. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier has consistently incorporated sailor stripes and maritime references into his 40-year career, even featuring the famous stripe on his iconic Le Male perfume bottle.