Best of Breton: Simple, chic and stripy fashion

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's simple, chic and stripy. Fashion's love affair with the French fisherman's traditional garb will run and run. And, says Harriet Walker, pourquoi pas?

The Breton top. What other mythical, magical garment could sit comfortably on the backs of so diverse a crowd as Kate Moss, Patti Smith, Faye Dunaway and Alexa Chung?

There's looking good and there's looking fashionable, and this humble confluence of simple stripes and jolly jersey is the answer to both. "They have a sense of humour to them," says Tess Richards, design director at high street store Jigsaw. "Their general appeal is basically that anyone can wear one and look great. They have that classic but cool vibe."

The fashion pack can be a superficial bunch – chasing an industry that works six months ahead of everyone else to create something that in six months' time will be defunct, before creating something new to take its place. But they're also a loyal and nostalgic crowd, constantly searching for something to pull on in the morning, come rain, shine, acne, wrinkles or mere industry faddishness and know, just know, that they aren't putting a well-shod foot wrong.

Think of French fashion and the pervading image is one of elegance and finery – of the great names lined up on Avenue George V, of Karl Lagerfeld tweaking an elaborately feathered bustier into place, and of arcane seamstresses spinning gossamer-thin, hand-crafted lace in garret rooms above the traffic of the Rue St. Honoré. Or, you think of a beret-ed chap in a stripy top with a string of onions slung around his neck. That trademark French je ne sais quoi actually lies somewhere between these two extremes, but the nation's reputation for being well turned-out probably owes more to the man with the onions than it does to the woman with the sewing machine. A wardrobe staple regardless of age, gender or ensemble, the Breton top – known variously as a marinière or matelot (which refers more generally to the sailor-style cut) – has that mystique and nonchalance to it that the rest of world is so eager to capture.

The signature blue and white stripes were originally the garb of French sailors and fishermen, made from lightweight chambray cotton. The traditional loose fit, wide neck and dropped shoulders caught the eye of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel during a trip to the beach, so the story goes, and she copied the look, teaming hers with a pair of relaxed palazzo pants. The upcoming film of the French designer's early life, Coco Before Chanel, handles this moment very well – one minute Audrey Tatou is going misty-eyed over some stripy sailors, the next, she's reclining on a chaise longue wearing something very similar. It's hard to explain why the sight of someone in a good Breton top excites the fashion senses so much, but its charm lies in the naivety of its design; there is something very sweet about the stripes, but very canny about the contrived sense of understatement. Which, of course, is what Chanel was all about.

On her instigation, the Breton became a symbol of haute-bourgeois loveliness during the pre-war Riviera years. After the war, it took on a more provocative edge: worn by gamine New Wave heroines, Jean Seberg and Jeanne Moreau, the Breton top channelled androgynous cool, while on sirens like Bardot, it took on a duskier, more sexualised tone. Even the boys were at it: Jean Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso took over from the fishermen as the faces of the Breton top, and Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs have taken up their mantle. After cheese and Truffaut, the signature stripes became one of France's most ubiquitous exports.

And the French are known for their patriotism. This is the country, after all, that developed its own native versions of McDonalds to protect the interests of French farmers. So it's interesting to note a cultural volte-face in this month's issue of L'Officiel – the Parisian rival to Vogue (which, despite its Gallic nomenclature, was originally launched in the US) – where the marinière is attributed to all-American girl Nicole Ritchie, in a "get the look" feature. It's testament to the universality of this unique garment that it can clothe (and suit) both the ultimate French femme, and LA's young pretenders to the style throne. But it's the old masters that know the magic of a matelot – marinière maven Kate Moss is regularly seen teaming hers with her skinny jeans and leggings, and Kate Phelan, fashion director at British Vogue, often wears one, inspired, she says, by growing up near the sailing communities of Exeter.

Of course there are those die-hard wearers who swear only by the genuine garments, as worn by the salty seadogs of Northern Europe – they have a distinctive thinner stripe which starts about two inches below the collarbone, with wide, dropped shoulder seams and are made of a stiffer cambric than shop-bought cottons. Try online stockists such as brittanyboutique.com or sailing outfitters Arthur Beale of Shaftesbury Avenue (020-7836 9034). But for landlubbers, there are plenty of inexpensive options on the high street – and plenty of modern updates too. Although this classic doesn't really need anything doing to it, there's a plethora of vests, T-shirts dresses and cardigans also available in the style. Alexa Chung wears her stripes loose and layered under dungarees and pinafore dresses, while Agyness Deyn teams them with denim cut-off shorts – although she modelled a sleeker version for Michael Kors' spring/summer collection.

Inspiration comes also from the editorial team of French Vogue, bien sur. Editor Carine Roitfeld and fashion director Emmanuelle Alt look impossibly chic wearing their Bretons with rock chick treggings (that's trouser-leggings), biker jackets and this season's wide-shouldered Balmain tuxedos. Stripe tops, mannish blazers and dark denim are the fashion editor's uniform and best friends during fashion week, scoring highly in both the comfort and the cool stakes. "Try with denim and an admiral jacket," says Tess Richards. "But they can literally be worn with anything, and work for day and night." Whoever heard of fashion being so accommodating? Vive le Breton!

News
people
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    RE Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Teacher of Religious Education ...

    A Level Chemistry Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: A Level Chemistry Teacher - Humb...

    NQT Secondary Teachers

    £100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is actively r...

    ICT Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: ICT Teacher - Scunthorpe This r...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence