24 June 2014

Stripes and the Sea: The History of the Breton Top

Do you love Breton tops as much as I do? Is your wardrobe brimming with Coco tops? I thought it'd be interesting to learn more about how the enduring fashion for the gorgeous striped staple emerged, so I asked my friend Amber Butchart, fashion historian and author, to write a guest post for us on their history. Amber has just finished writing her second book all about Nautical Chic, which comes out next year. Can. Not. Wait. [Update: It's out now!] In the meantime, lucky us, we get to read an abridged version of the section on stripes before anyone else...


"The relationship between stripes and the sea goes back a very long time. The striped top - what we know today as a Breton - has become a marker of effortless chic, but it started off life as a humble fishing shirt, an extra knitted layer that provided much needed warmth.

'Bateau pecheur', fishing boats off Naples, 1840, from the National Maritime Museum

Stripes were popular among mariners as they were highly visible if a man were to fall over board. 18th century seamen wore vertically striped trousers, and Nelson even had a pair of striped stockings in 1797 (below left). They weren’t even regulation uniform! But they fed into the fads for striped hose that had been in and out of favour for men of fashion since the 17th century. Thanks to breeches, men’s legs were on display at this time and just begging to be decorated.

Nelson’s stockings at the National Maritime Museum (left) + American stockings, c.1850 at the Met Museum (right)

Throughout the 19th century many technological innovations were made that meant knitting stripes in the round was easier than ever before. These stockings (above right) from the Met Museum are one of my favourite examples.

The link between stripes and the sea was cemented when the striped undershirt became part of the official French naval uniform in 1858. The uniform regulations for the ‘tricot rayé’ were meticulous, listing the exact number of stripes that could appear on the body and sleeves.

Swimmers in Denmark, c.1900 found at Photo History Sussex. Many more can be found on their Brighton Swimming Club page

By the end of the century stripes were a popular choice for swimwear (which was also knitted) along the coasts of Europe - no matter how cold!

If you search the internet, many histories of the nautical striped top will tell you that it first crossed into fashion via Chanel. However, this isn’t entirely true. Some of the very first clothing items that she made way back in 1913 were based on the clothes of local fisherman, but it didn’t include the striped top. For that, we have an American couple to thank called Gerald and Sara Murphy, 10 years later in 1923.

Gerald and Sara Murphy at Cap D'Antibes (left) + Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in a genius move teamed his striped top with plus fours (right)

The Murphys had first visited the French Riviera the year before, as guests of Cole Porter. They liked it so much that they came back the following year and set up home. In doing this they started a summer ‘season’ (previously society had only visited during the winter months) and alongside that came the vogue for suntanning. Sara Murphy’s predilection for pearls at the beach foreshadowed Chanel. In 1923 Gerald took a trip to Marseille to get supplies for his boat, and returned with striped tops from the marine shop for himself and his guests. His guests variously included artists, writers and trendsetters such as Man Ray, Dorothy Parker, Stravinsky, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The popularity of the striped top spread like wildfire. Chanel herself was photographed wearing one the following year at a rehearsal of a Ballets Russes production, and by the end of the decade she proceeded to build her own Riviera home, La Pausa.

Nouvelle Vague: Jean Seberg

From Picasso to Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, The Ramones and Kurt Cobain, nautical stripes have an enduring appeal fuelled by their links to both French elegance and countercultural cool. Far from its beginnings as occupational clothing, today the top is a chic classic worn by everyone from rock stars to fashion editors.

Jean Paul Gaultier photographed by Pierre et Gilles in 1990

You can get traditional French marinières to this day from the following places: Saint James, who were founded in 1850 as a wool spinning and dyeing plant in Normandy. Armor Lux who originated in Brittany in 1938, or Orcival, founded the following year in Paris who even outfitted the French navy. For an updated version, try Petit Bateau who started life as a hosiery factory in the traditional textile centre of Troyes in 1893, and are now a complete lifestyle brand. (Even better, dear readers, make your own! - Ed.) For a high fashion take, Sonia Rykiel and Jean Paul Gaultier have made the marinière their own in a playful celebration of the kitschier side of this eternal marker of Gallic chic. For more, see the current Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican, and hear me talking on the app!

And for the full story, make sure to get a copy of my Nautical Chic book, out next spring (2015) published by Thames & Hudson in the UK, and by Abrams in the States. Anchors Aweigh!"

Author: Amber Butchart