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The History of the Breton Shirt

Take a quick look into any French person’s wardrobe, and you’re bound to find at least one striped shirt, if not more. Few garments have stood the test of time and the Breton shirt, the French blue and white striped shirt or the marinière is surely one of them.

A classic staple in France and the world (and definitely MY closet), the Breton shirt was designed with function and form in mind. The stripes became iconic after being adopted by the fashion industry but the original Breton shirt has quite humble beginnings.

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woman in blue and white striped shirt on the beach

But what differentiates a regular striped shirt from a Breton shirt? Do the stripes mean anything? Let’s find out!

History of the Breton Shirt

Uniform for the French seamen

The beginnings of this famed Breton shirt can be traced back to Napoleon’s time. Back in 1858, the striped shirt was a uniform for the seamen of the French navy in Northern France. The shirt was created as a white cotton pullover with horizontal indigo stripes.

A government decree was passed which mentioned the specifications for the shirt – a 2cm white stripe followed by a 1cm indigo blue stripe repeated one after the other. In total, the shirt would have 21 white and blue stripes, making it easier to be spotted in the water in case the seamen fell overboard.

The shirt also had a boat neckline (a wider cut around the neck) along with three-quarter sleeves for easy removal. Made without any fussy buttons, zips, or pockets, the shirt reduced any hazards on a vessel, such as tugging or getting snagged in machinery.

woman in blue and white striped shirt

Origins of the shirt in Brittany, Northern France

The French navy was based in Brittany or La Bretagne, hence the shirt was named the Breton shirt. During the 1800s, France was ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, and it was believed that the 21 stripes on the shirt symbolized Napoleon’s 21 naval victories against the English.

Before 1858, only the naval officers wore the striped shirt but gradually as the years went by, it was adopted by the fishermen, the boatsmen, and the men working on the harbors for its ease of use.

In 1923, French Militant Morvan Marchal used these stripes to create the Flag of Brittany, nine horizontal stripes alternating between black and white, and 11 black ermine spots.

girl in red and white striped shirt

Breton shirt in fashion

So much more than just an iconic garment, the Breton shirt was soon adopted by the fashion and the film industry after the first world war. During the 1950s, the shirt was an eccentric icon as designers worldwide started incorporating it into their clothes. But how did a naval uniform turn into a shirt loved and praised by international celebrities and designers?

black girl in blue and white striped shirt

Did Coco Chanel make the Breton Shirt fashionable? 

The story goes that Coco Chanel, on one of her many trips to the coastal town of Deauville (where her hat shop was located), saw the Breton shirt on the sailors and the fishermen, and was inspired by the design so much so that she incorporated it in her 1917 couture collection heavily influenced by the stripes!

After the collection hit the stores, more and more people started holidaying on the French coasts and wearing these striped shirts, replacing the heavy suits with these light, minimal cotton shirts.

It is also believed by some that Chanel was initially fascinated with the collars that the sailors wore on top of the Breton shirt, and used them in her ready-to-wear collection in her Deauville store. They became popular there, and when Chanel became a couturier in Paris, she used the collar design to make custom wool marnière tops with matching skirts, which would become the basis of her signature Chanel Suit.

The loose fit of the marnière revolutionized womenswear and lead it away from the tight corsets of the time

While Chanel may not have been the first designer to use these stripes in her designs, she was surely the one who popularized the garment and revealed its potential to the world.

Adopted by fashion icons and movies

The stripes became more and more popular after the 1920s and were soon featured in movies all around the globe. The shirt became a huge hit in the 1950s in Hollywood when stars like James Dean, Jean Cocteau, and Audrey Hepburn appeared on the big screens sporting these shirts.

Worn by everyone, from Picasso and Kurt Kobain to the Duchess of Cambridge and Kate Moss, the shirt became an androgynous symbol of classic French chic and is a fashion staple even today, for both the bohemian and the bourgeoise looks.

Today, any striped cotton shirt, regardless of the number of stripes, their thickness, or their color (reasonably modified), is known as a Breton shirt but to keep its authenticity, it is recommended that the shirt be made with sturdy cotton without mixing any polyester or other artificial fabrics. The stripes can either be in black and white or blue and white – the traditional monochromatic palette.

The Breton shirt has stood the test of time and truly become a universal symbol of effortless French elegance!

blue and white striped shirt hanging on a line

Where to Buy French Breton Striped Shirts

Small confession I have close to 2 dozen marinière or Breton French striped shirts. I pick them up all the time. Different thicknesses of stripes, different colors of stripes, short sleeves, long sleeves, different fabrics, I am obsessed! If you are a fan too, here are some places to look for them.

man in blue and white striped shirt on a boat

More posts on French fashion:

How about you? Do you own a Breton shirt? Are you a fan? Do tell!

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girl in blue and white striped shirt and red beret with red sunglasseswoman in blue and white striped shirt and white skirtwoman in blue and white striped shirt and red beretE

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14 Comments

  1. It always looks amazing on other people. I’m just not able to wear stripes that go that way. I love seeing more of them up here in the mountains in the Fall. Everyone else that wears them, looks amazing!

  2. That’s so fun to learn the history behind this shirt. I do always think stripes look French but I never really knew why.

  3. This shirt is perfect for my husband! This is a really great and very informative post! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  4. I have seen that shirt before, but did not know it had such historical significance. That is very interesting. I like the shirt.

  5. I didn’t realize there was so much history tied to the Brenton shirt, I also didn’t know it was called a Brenton shirt!