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A brief history of the Breton Stripe

From military-wear to high fashion, the story of sea and stripes

Unlike trends which are society-driven, fashion draws its influence from many things; nature and industry, conventional and unconventional standards, cultural and artistic movements but one unlikely influence on fashion is that of military and maritime styles. 

While military styles are often used as a statement or political symbol, maritime patterns are considered a timeless trend and the Breton stipe is no exception. 

Training of officers and cadets, 1935. Credit: Getty
Training of officers and cadets, 1935. Credit: Getty

The relationship between stripes and sea dates back to 1858 when an act of Parliament was passed in France under Napoleon lll. It decreed that striped knit should become part of the national naval uniform in Brittany. The introduction of the Breton sweater came at a time of innovation within the fashion industry, mass-production had replaced handicrafts and smaller production lines; weaving the striped sweater was easy and cheap, it required no fastenings on which seafarers could catch or snag the garment or complex seams which would have upped the cost. It’s thought that the alternate blue/white stripes were chosen as they were easy to spot had a man gone overboard.

Audrey Hepburn, 1954. Credit: Alamy
Audrey Hepburn, 1954. Credit: Alamy

Worn by those lower down in the ships hierarchy, le pull marin (meaning the sailor sweater) soon denoted negative connotations among the naval forces with those at the top of the hierarchy referring to wearers as zebras. 

The striped style bobbed along without any significant change for 70 years until 1916 when it was propelled with force into the fashion spotlight by young, innovative fashion designer Coco Chanel who took inspiration from local Breton fisherman. In true Chanel style, Coco adapted the sweater to fit the female form and launched it as part of her ‘garçonne’ look in the 1917 Chanel couture collection, it was an instant success.

Brigitte Bardot on a Ferrari, 1960
Brigitte Bardot on a Ferrari, 1960

Did you know?

Chanel’s modified Breton striped sweater is a perfect example of the trickle-up effect where designs are taken from working class garments, adapted and worn by the affluent classes. The trickle-up effect is rare but the trickle-down effect is most certainly not. Trickle-down, as you would expect, is the process of taking inspiration from the top and adapting them so they can be produced cheaply and sold widely. 

Through the latter decades of the 20th century, designers adapted the tricot rayé (the striped kit), celebrities and avant-garde figures flaunted it and teenagers, finding new freedoms and independence from their parents began experimenting with stripes. The timeless style was most notably worn by Pablo Picasso, Bridget Bardot, Audrey Hepburn and Jean Paul Gaultier who has become synonymous with the bold stripe.

Jean Paul Gaultier photographed by Pierre et Gilles in 1990
Jean Paul Gaultier photographed by Pierre et Gilles in 1990

The Breton Stripe has become a symbol of France and of fashion. Simple nautical stripes have an enduring appeal, one that shouts timeless elegance and coolness in equal measure. 

“It’s a universal garment that fits with a cool weekend look, a cool sportswear look but even when combined in a rather formal context it still fits. It fits men, women and children well, and that is key for an icon to emerge and establish itself.” - Marco Pettruci, Armor Lux.

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