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!