Dealing in cultural cliché isn’t advisable, but in the case of the go-to shirt for your dad’s idea of a French person, they are rarely this flattering. As stereotypically French as puffing pastry and Gauloises, the Breton top has been a staple of one of the world’s most stylish cultures for a century or more.
Before appearing on catwalks and perfume bottles, the Breton shirt, known in its native country as a marinière, had long been worn by fishermen in Brittany in the North-West of France. On 27 March 1858 The Act Of France introduced the garment into the nation’s official naval uniform (the Russians would later follow suit). These were made in Bretagne in a style that comprised a boat neckline, three-quarter length sleeves, and 21 blue and white horizontal stripes, one for each of Napoleon’s naval victories. The design choice was as patriotic as it was pragmatic since the stripes made anyone who had fallen overboard easier to spot.
But the Breton would only enter civilian life in 1917 thanks to Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. Her ‘Nautical Collection’ was aparently inspired by the fishermen she saw while holidaying in the coastal resort of Deauville. Chanel, the longtime éminence grise of the dernier cri, elevated the working garment to couture status, with the upper classes (who alone could afford to follow fashion in the early twentieth century) donning the nautical garment in high society. She also turned what could hardly have been a more masculine garment into a unisex staple, perhaps even one that has over time become generally perceived as feminine.
In the decades since Chanel’s rebranding, the Breton shirt has remained a firm favourite among fashionistas, bohemians and, of course, the French. Distinguished members of the latter group include Jean Seberg (who made it her signature), Jeanne Moreau, Bridget Bardot, Marcel Marceau, the photographers Pierre et Gilles, and two of France’s most famous Jean-Pauls: Sartre and Gaultier.
Elsewhere in the world, it proved a staple for some of the twentieth century’s most famous artists (in the forms of Picasso and Warhol), outsiders (like James Dean and Kurt Cobain), and style icons (an impressive list including Audrey Hepburn, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Edie Sedgwick, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Kennedy).
At the movies we’ve seen Bretons on John Wayne in Adventures End (1937), Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief (1955), Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957), and Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle (1960), or Breathless if you prefer to parle Anglais.
No surprises then that it’s still the case that, should you want to add some panache or élan to an ensemble, you need only reach for a Breton.