The stylish history of the Breton stripe

There are very few truly timeless patterns in menswear but the classic Breton stripe (which traditionally counts 21 stripes in honour of the 21 victories of the French Emperor Napoleon) has become a style staple.

Since its official introduction as the uniform of the French Navy in 1858, the Breton stripe was adopted by the working-class fishermen of Brittany, and became the shirt of choice for rebels, revolutionaries and the avant-garde.

When Coco Chanel included it in her nautical-themed collection in 1917, it was picked up by the Parisian masses as a sign of haute-bourgeois luxury.

In the '50s, the stripe became synonymous with intellectual dissidents such as the French New Wave and America's Beat Generation, before becoming an anti-hero symbol when it was worn by James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Lee Marvin in The Wild One.

More recently it has also been sent down countless high fashion runways including Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior Homme and Gucci.

But despite all this history, the primary appeal of this simple, horizontal stripe lies in the fact that it's flattering for pretty much all size and shapes and adds a splash of detail to satisfy even the most minimalist of aesthetes.

Earn your stripe

How does one perfectly pull off the duds of a deck hand?

First, forget the myth that if you lean towards the thicker end of the physical spectrum that you can't pull off a horizontal stripe.


By creating the illusion of having broader shoulders and chest, the Breton stripe gives the impression of a narrower waist. The trick is to retain a slim, but not snug, fit.

The same goes for that old wives' tale regarding height. While wider, more pronounced stripes such as this version by French label Lanvin work perfectly for tall landlubbers, thinner varieties such as this one by English brand Margaret Howell or this long-sleeved number by Gucci will keep you looking ship-shape.

Original Saint

If you're a stickler for tradition, nothing compares to the satisfaction of owning a Breton Stripe from the original designer – Brittany-based label Saint James.

Still using the same ateliers in the town that gave them their namesake, the Saint James Breton stripe is the only one to wear for anyone who values authenticity. The Saint James range of cotton shirts and woollen jumpers are made using the best in locally sourced materials, combining traditional methods with modern techniques. While they offer the Breton in a range of colours, nothing beats the old school combo of navy stripe on white. Maybe cream, if you're feeling adventurous.

At around $95, the storied original also happens to be monumentally cheaper than those made by major high-end designers.  

So while the majority of us probably don't have the cool $US200 million ($A255 million) it takes to own your own superyacht - or the extra $20 million it takes to man it - we can, at least, still dress like the most stylish of salty dogs.

Which other style icons do you think have stood the test of time?