It’s happening again. I’m rummaging through my closet hoping to find useful basics. But all I can find are pieces like a black lace-trimmed skirt, sequined shorts, bright colored coats etc. I should really learn to be more focused when shopping. Too many items with too much drama. All pretty but not suitable for daily use. Definitely more basics are needed here. At that very moment my old stripy Breton shirt falls into my hands. It looks the worse of wear – worn sleeves, a crooked hem, washed out colors. I’m not surprised. It has been worn a hundred times, washed and tumble dried ever so often – sometimes too hot (my husband does the laundry on rare occasions). Hence my „French Friend“ has served me well. My conclusion: got to get new ones, ´cause I love my striped classic for so many reasons: it’s so „french“, a little cheeky, modern, yet comfy and timeless. It perfectly matches with almost any piece in my closet – even the aforementioned dramatic ones. Enough convincing points to buy a new striped shirt. But this time I’ll go for a an upscale one so it can also survive hub’s laundry turns. So I begin searching for the perfect „French Friend“. As curious as I am, my online Shopping trip turns into research because I really want to know where this versatile classic has its origin. Let me tell you a little (Hi-)Story about the Breton Shirt…
The year is 1850. A young french sailor is close to drowning in the rough sea of the English Channel. In the end he is saved. Was it luck or magic? The latter certainly not. But it was a lucky coincidence that he was wearing a special piece of garment: the Breton shirt. Thanks to its distinctive stripes standing out against the waves his fellow men could spot him more easily and saved him.
It might have been a story alike that induced the French navy in1858 to declare the Breton shirt their official „Tricot“. But there were further practical reasons (though what could be more practical than saving your life?) why the French selected the Breton shirt, also called la Marinière, their uniform. The boat neckline allowed to dress quickly, the 3/4 sleeve length made sure no garment gets entangled in the ropes, the woven cotton proved both easy to move in and a textile shelter against wind and water. So much for history. Let’s come to the question how this allegedly life saving shirt found its way to our closets and hearts.
It was no less than Coco Chanel who introduced the striped classic to the world of fashion in the early 1920s. On her trips to the French Riviera the local fishermen presumably inspired her to wear la Marinière with flared trousers. Above all it matched her idea of liberating women from corsets (can’t thank her enough for that) and combining the comfortable with the luxurious. Soon followed a naval inspired Chanel Collection and voilà, Coco did it again: she set a trend and kicked off the unstoppable journey of la Marinière to become a timeless classic.
Later artists like Picasso and Hollywood icons such as Audrey Hepburn and James Dean also couldn’t resist the charms of the Breton shirt and were photographed wearing it. This is how the classic came to more fame. Ever since designers let themselves be inspired by the marine style in different ways. Currently the designer duo Talbot Runhof for instance, combines maritime spirit, with political wink-of-an-eye humor and luxurious flowing materials. For the brand Petit Bateau maritime stripes are emblematic and la Marinière has become a re-appearing classic in every collection.
From multi-colored stripes, lace-trims to upscale or budget – there are so many versions of the classic. Feel free to make it your own, by picking your favorite and combining it according to your individual sense of style. Here you will find my personal favorite „French friend“ and the way I wear it.