Oi Polloi

The Breton Shirt - an Oi Polloi Champion

Published: Fri Mar 08 2019

Some eagle-eyed lurkers might have noticed we’ve recently taken stock of some rather nice, super-heavyweight Breton shirts from a Japanese company named Tieasy. To give them a little bit of context, we got skilled scribe Tayler Willson to give us the history of this classic Gallic garment…

The clothes someone wears can tell you a lot about them as a person. An oversized hoodie might signal a grunger for example, or a pair of bootcut jeans and sheux could scream lonely, recently-divorced dad. Very few garments though have managed to affect how the rest of the world might perceive an entire nation, an area, a particular place, its inhabitants and how they might dress or act - yet this is exactly what the Breton stripe has achieved. 

Like scooping part-baked sourdough bread through a warm, melted camembert, the Breton stripes - known natively as la marinière - are about as French as it comes. Originating in Brittany in the northwest of the country - a region renowned for its maritime heritage - the Breton stripe has since become iconic across the world.

“Like scooping part-baked sourdough bread through a warm, melted camembert, the Breton stripes are about as French as it comes.” 

Dating back to 1858, the Breton top became the official rig-out of the French Navy - mostly out of practicality more than anything - as it was thought that sailors who fell overboard would be easier to spot in the water wearing stripes.

The garment’s wide neck (for ease of entry) and not-too-loose fit (to avoid snagging) are two features that still make a Breton top to this day. Originally knitted with thick wool and made with three-quarter length sleeves, the more modern Breton tops are usually cotton, with full-length arms. 

According to the French National Navy Museum (Musée national de la Marine), the OG Breton would feature exactly twenty-two blue and white stripes (2cm white, 1cm blue), an amount and width that would signify a true and proud Breton (someone from Brittany), as opposed to a moody replica. 

Despite its unquestionable popularity nowadays, its first move from naval wear to fashion wasn’t initially welcomed. Adam (a French menswear magazine from the early 20th century) published an article in the mid-1930s about how the French Riviera was being overrun with young men in ‘fashionable sailor outfits’. Soon after though, the new post-war generation had developed and things across Europe were rapidly changing.

The youth culture of Paris especially so, were keen to move on from the World War era and create their own footprint - it was their time to be modern. This revolution resulted in the Breton stripes being worn by the young, the old, the skinny and the fat. Kids all across the country were wearing the stripes with rolled up chinos, so much so that the Breton was even dubbed France’s version of the American plain white tee. 

So much was its popularity that soon enough the silver screen had started embracing the stripes. Cary Grant can be seen wearing a grey striped version of the Breton paired with a neckerchief in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief whilst its obvious influence in New Wave Cinema was most famously evident in the mid-60s when Jean Seberg’s Breton worn in Breathless became the inspiration behind Yves Saint Laurent’s eventual Breton introduction into his collections.

Jean-Paul Gaultier also admitted he often used (and still uses) the stripes to play on things being unilaterally French for photoshoots (as well as wearing them regularly himself back when hosting Eurotrash) and even insisted his press team wear them during his runway shows. It isn’t just the natives that have since adopted the look with the likes of James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Andy Warhol and, arguably most famously, Pablo Picasso, being shot wearing Brittany’s finest over time. 

More recently in 2011, the late Karl Lagerfeld even designed the French national football team’s away kit, including the famous stripes. It was a traditional and stylish design that not only was well received across France, but globally too. 

The Breton stripe continues (and will continue) to influence menswear both in workwear and in high fashion, with its magically effortless and adaptable way of fitting in with almost anything. Unlike the days of yesteryear, the flexibility and versatility available with a design like the Breton is like no other. no matter what size the stripes are, or if they are a certain colour, the strength and recognisability of the Breton has made it synonymous with France whether accurate with tradition or not.

Whether, like the young bohemian men of the French Riviera you’re in stripes on the beaches of Porquerolles sipping a chalet of Stella Artois, or you’ve tucked a long-sleeved Breton into a pair of grubby trackies as you trudge to the offie on a wet, hungover Sunday morning to grab a Magnum Double Chocolate and a massive bag of Tangy Cheese Doritos, there’s always a place for the Breton. Viva La Breton!