Sailors in stripes

Sailors sporting the iconic Breton striped shirt.

Worn by actors, artists and it-girls alike, the indigo-and-white striped shirt has been a sartorial icon for over a century. We took a look back at the utilitarian roots of this contemporary fashion staple.

The striped shirt originates from Brittany, a northwest region of France rich in nautical history and culture. Breton fisherman (from the Bretagne region) wore the striped shirt as a safety method while on the high seas – it was easier to distinguish a man overboard in a striped shirt against the dark water than one in solid clothing. But it wasn’t until the Act of France was introduced on March 27, 1858, that the indigo-and-white striped “tricot rayé” became the uniform for all the French navy seaman of Brittany. Originally called a marinière or matelot, the traditional design featured 21 white stripes (one for each of Napoleon’s victories) and 20 indigo stripes, with the white being twice as large.

In 1917, Coco Chanel was the first to introduce the naval work shirt into the fashion world as part of her Chanel resort collection. Coco meant for it to be worn with long flared trousers to destinations like St. Tropez. The introduction of the shirt into high society can also be attributed to fashionable American couple Gerald and Sara Murphy. In the 1920s, they traveled to the French Riviera as guests of Cole Porter and fell in love with the local culture so much that they soon made it their permanent home. In 1923, Gerald returned from a trip to Marseille with striped tops from the marine shop for the Murphy’s summer guests – an illustrious bunch, including Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Breton shirt quickly became a symbol of haute-bourgeois during pre-war Riviera years, and soon after icons like Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot were seen sporting the striped shirt in their own effortless way.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the striped shirt (in a variety of stripes and colors) had a resurging moment amongst the Beatnik community and alternative culture in general. It was first seen on the big screen in The Wild One (1953), with both Marlon Brando and co-star Lee Marvin wearing the striped shirt. The film inspired biker Frank Sadilek, whose uniform as the president of the Hell’s Angels San Francisco (1955-1962) consisted of a striped shirt and a gold earring. In 1955, James Dean could be seen in the top in Rebel Without a Cause and Cary Grant wore it well in To Catch a Thief. The pop art world followed shortly after, with Edie Sedgwick donning her trademark top and black tights in Andy Warhol’s film Kitchen (1965). Through the 1990s, the striped shirt continued to hold its place as a sartorial icon. French designer Jean Paul Gaultier built an entire brand on his signature stripes, adding them to everything from t-shirts to perfume bottles to sofas.

One of the only Breton shirt manufacturers still based in Brittany, Armor Lux is a heritage brand that has stayed true to its region and roots for over almost a century. In 1938, the Swiss-German businessman and engineer Walter Hubacher launched a line of high-quality underwear and striped shirts under his company Bonneterie d’Armor. In 1965, Armor bought its first dying facility, thus accomplishing vertical integration. Five years later, the company launched its first full prêt-à-porter collection of mariner shirts – all made of the finest materials that had become coveted by sailors and the fashion set, alike.

The secret? The Breton shirt is made with quality jersey fabric on a circular knit machine (rectangular being the more common shape), creating a single jersey and interlock fabric. Instead of using yarn that has only been spun in one direction, causing the fabric to lose shape over time as the yarn re-opens, Armor Lux “is one of the last companies in the world to use [yarn woven in two directions] in one construction. [ . . .]  This way, both yarns lock each other and are blocked.” This method makes the shirt more durable and able to maintain its shape over years of regular wear.

Today, the striped Breton shirt is worn by young and old, edgy and sophisticated. It’s become an icon of enduring appeal for its connotation with French elegance, alternative cool and rich nautical history.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Bob
    Posted November 11, 2014 at 10:57 AM | Permalink

    I worked in the textile industry in the late 1950's and early 1960's.We built machinery that probably not in production anymore. Thank goodness for museums. Very interesting article.

  2. Tanya
    Posted November 11, 2014 at 11:24 AM | Permalink

    I have several in my closet it’s timeless & chic with wide leg trousers pencil skirts circle skirts skinny jeans khakis or anything! Merci France!

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