A sea-change was taking place in French fashion and society, and it would propel the Breton T-shirt from undistinguished workwear to iconic fashion item. By the Thirties, Saint Tropez and the other Riviera resorts were enjoying a new, second wave of popularity. In the 19th century they had grown rich on their winter season, when the monied classes descended from across Europe to enjoy the mild climate in the opulent surroundings of grand hotels and villas. In the new century, fashion leader Coco Chanel began a cult of sun worship, which rapidly took off, spurred on by the spread of the railways and roads to previously inaccessible seaside resorts. A new, summer season was born.
It was Chanel too who would prove to be instrumental in major changes to the way people dressed. She rejected the flummery of the belle epoque for the simple and the unstructured, drawing on traditional, working-class clothes and sportswear. It is said that while she was walking along the beach in Deauville with her lover and backer, Arthur "Le Boy" Capel, she had one of her greatest moments of inspiration. Borrowing his jersey sweater against the cold, she realised that, with a few snips of her cutter's scissors, it could be adapted as a chic, simple woman's top.
On the French Riviera, as American and European socialites mixed in their Thirties playground, the new style coalesced, clothes which were comfortable and appropriate to location, activity and climate - and not restricted by etiquette. It was "the product," writes Farid Chenoune in A History of Men's Fashion (Flammarion, 1993), "of rapid, multiple borrowings from fishermen's gear, sailors' uniforms, sports clothing and colonial dress, both military and civilian."
Sailor outfits were particularly popular: their smocks, tunic-like garments in red or blue cotton with a V-neck that opened squarely on to the shoulder and back, worn over - or sometimes replaced by - the low-necked striped jersey with notched armholes that is the Breton T-shirt. This was typically worn tucked into duck bell- bottom trousers, which were belted with a silk sash and completed by long-laced espadrilles knotted above the ankle. A more sophisticated Thirties sailor style was the adoption of the Breton T-shirt worn with a cravat, beneath a blazer, over shorts and deck shoes, and topped off with a peaked naval cap.
A generation later, the Breton T-shirt had transmuted again. It survived the vagaries of the Second World War and re-emerged as a badge of avant- gardism and youth rebellion in the intellectual ferment of post-Liberation Paris. This was where Jean-Paul Sartre was expounding a new philosophy called existentialism in the bars of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and a new wave of artists were taking to the stage, from radical film-maker Jean Cocteau to actress and jazz icon Juliette Greco (who sang "Rien ne sera comme avant a Saint Germain des Pres").
Within a decade such figures, and the Saint-Germain-des-Pres "scene", had managed to attract a cult following worldwide. "A Frenchman in 1947," writes Andre Maurois in The Women of Paris (The Bodley Head, 1954), "could not arrive in New York, Rio, Tokyo or Bogota without being immediately asked by journalists, `What about Jean-Paul Sartre? And Juliette Greco? And the Tabou?'"
During the Occupation, Saint-Germain-des-Pres had been a Resistance stronghold; post-war it became a magnet for young people who refused to go back to the adult-oriented pre-war conformity. "All those young people read Jean- Paul Sartre and Albert Camus," writes Maurois. "They loved the poets and the philosophers." Their meeting place became a club called Tabou.
The apocryphal story of the club's birth is that one night Juliette Greco had hung her coat on some railings in the Rue Dauphine but it had fallen off, and when she went to retrieve it she discovered a narrow stairway leading down to a former cellar bar. Together with her group of friends they rented the space and, on 11 April 1947, the Club du Tabou opened.
Again a particular look came together here: "The young men with thick hair low over their foreheads," writes Maurois. "The girls with long hair down their backs. A lot of people wanted to see them," he adds. "Juliette, with her deep, grave voice, slammed the door in the faces of those people who did not please her." Exclusivity added to the club's attraction. Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and publisher Gaston Gallimard became regulars. Tabou's reputation grew. It inspired other, similar cellar "nightclubs": the Lorient, the Mephisto, the Saint-Germain-des-Pres Club, Vieux-Colombier and Rose Rouge. In many ways, this was the birth of youth culture as we now understand it.
Maurois explains that the new, young women club regulars "wore their hair long because they could not afford to go to the hairdressers; they wore men's trousers because they could not afford stockings; they wore black jerseys with rolled-collars because they could not afford to send light-coloured woollens to the cleaners; they looked like `an unknown woman from the Seine' because they were hungry and sad." Farid Chenoune adds, "Sartorial slovenliness - worn trousers, crumpled corduroy, dirty shirts, torn sweaters, sagging socks, unshined shoes - became part of a street-level existentialism." Le Monde's fashion writer criticised the "dirty sloppiness of Sartre-followers".
Saint-Germain fashion fused run-of-the-mill middle-class wear - loose, hand-knitted sweaters and scarves, corduroy jackets and trousers, whatever was available despite the shortages - with US army surplus and other items obtained from GIs, such as blue jeans. Saint-Germain was where the first wide-cuffed black jeans, ski pants, dark truckers' sweaters with zippers and, of course, black turtleneck sweaters, all first appeared. These young existentialists also adopted their own version of the American T-shirt which was then starting to appear: the Breton T-shirt.
The look is captured in a feature entitled "French High Life in a Low Cellar, French Teen-Agers Swing Out at the Club Lorient", in The Picture Post of 13 March, 1948. Photographs by Joe Pazen show a variety of girls in striped tops - V-necked, turtle-necked and crew-necked with three-quarter-length sleeves, teamed with ski pants, wide plaid skirts and matching socks.
Across the West, versions of the existentialist philosophy and look were adopted and adapted. In Britain the former was popularised through Colin Wilson's best-selling 1956 study of alienation, The Outsider. In the latter, actors such as Juliette Greco - who in addition to her singing career was a fixture of the films of Cocteau and Marcello Mastorianni - inspired the style of the early Modernists in Britain.
"We never smoked but we would light up a Gauloise just to be seen with it," remembers shoe designer Johnny Moke in Mods by Richard Barnes (Eel Pie Publishing). "We all got into the French films and magazines, but [my friend] Les went berserk. He used to wear a striped jumper and beret and eat garlic and everything. He started to learn French. We saw him once sitting in the Aldgate Wimpy holding up a copy of Le Soir. When we went in and joined him we saw that he was really reading the Sunday Pictorial which he had concealed between the middle pages. It was all a pose. There was even a time when we saw him walking around wearing his beret and a striped jumper and carrying a loaf of French bread under his arm."
In the US the beat movement emerged, which came with an array of beatnik gear: beards, turtlenecks, berets, bongos. By 1960 the look was already being satirised in MAD magazine, while the 6 May, 1962 issue of pin-up magazine Scamp ran a photo-story entitled "One Night with a Beatchick", following Joannie Grant, wearing an open-to-the-navel striped Breton top and side-knotted neckerchief, on a journey through "the LA beat section", a jaunt which takes them into an existentialist bookshop, a modern poetry reading and ends in a typical espresso coffee house, all part of the nightly "scene" with a " beatchick".
The Breton T-shirt was a key strand in the nascent T-shirt culture. In the American version it was white, an article of clothing appropriated from US forces' attire. In the film The Wild One (1953), which was banned in Britain until 1968, it is Marlon Brando's white T-shirt with the cigarette packet rolled up in one sleeve which is now seen as iconic, but co-star Lee Marvin's character, wearing the striped Breton-style T-shirt, had its own emotive power at the time, and in many ways his was the darker character. Both Brando, who, incidentally, was close to Juliette Greco at this time, and Marvin play outsiders, rebels, who ride into town on their bikes, kicking up dust in the face of the establishment and conservative America in general. Producer Stanley Kramer had been inspired by an article in Harper's on the 1947 take-over of the town of Hollister by 4,000 bikers. As Yves Lavigne writes in Hell's Angels, "He saw the outlaw biker as America's last individualist, a motorised bohemian ... Kramer helped make outlaw bikers, epitomised in real life by the Hell's Angels, the symbol of rebellion for two generations."
Legendary biker Frank Sadilek, inspired by the film, drove to Hollywood to buy the blue-and-yellow striped, long-sleeved T-shirt that Marvin wore in the movie, and became president of the Hell's Angels San Francisco chapter from 1955 to 1962. His appearance, writes Lavigne, established the archetypal biker look: the gold earring, the clip-on nose ring, purple- dyed beard and that T-shirt which he would wear until it fell to pieces. A uniquely American variation on the striped T-shirt at this time, the prison uniform, also signified the outsider in the public's mind. The title track of the Elvis Presley film Jailhouse Rock (1957) features Elvis in striped prison outfit in a sequence often held up as the pinnacle of rock'n'roll choreography: it was a heady combination of outlaw music and styling at this early date in his career.
Hollywood began its love affair with France in the mid-Fifties. In many ways this flurry of films harked back to the looks and fashions of the Thirties. Costume designer Edith Head ensured that Alfred Hitchcock's comedy-thriller To Catch A Thief (1955) opened with Cary Grant's hero- of-the-Resistance-come-retired-cat-burglar wearing a Breton-style long- sleeved T-shirt teamed with a red and white polka-dot cravat and grey trousers. In the 1956 musical Funny Face - which manages to rhyme Sartre with Montmartre - Hollywood went so far as to recreate the Paris cellar clubs and dressed Audrey Hepburn in a black turtleneck sweater and ski pants - plus, of course, a Breton T-shirt.
In America in the mid-Sixties, the Breton T-shirt became a favourite of the artist Andy Warhol. A decade earlier, Picasso - another painter who intuitively understood the power and significance of public image - was famously photographed wearing the same item.
A link between Warhol and the post-war beats can be found in Edie, by Jean Stein and George Plimpton (Jonathan Cape, 1982), a biography of troubled, drug-addict Warhol actress Edie Sedgwick. In it, Factory stalwart Danny Fields talks about Ondine, the star of several Warhol movies and the subject of Warhol's novel, A. "Ondine was around a lot at this period, always ready for some Factory party. He was one of the first great Mole People - those who moved through a transitional stage from beatnik into a more stylised and campy version. We called them Mole People because they only seemed to come out at night; they all wore black - black turtlenecks, pants. Some leather. Their skins were light, and they were very intense. A lot of them were into dance. A sort of severe kind of night-time creative craziness. Ondine came out of that."
On display at the exhibition "The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion" at the Barbican last year, in the section "Silver Factory Style", were Warhol's jacket, over his blue and white striped Breton T-shirt, with a pair of black jeans and his Centenari & Zenelli "Beetle Boots"."Around 1963," explained the accompanying note, "Andy Warhol invented a new personal style. As he shifted his focus to painting, film-making and the production of rock music and happenings, his look included leather jackets, jeans, boots, sunglasses and a silver-sprayed wig."
Warhol's clothes at this time represent a merging of European outsider and American outlaw figures. In Billy Name - Stills From the Warhol Films by Debra Miller (Prestel, 1994), the photographer Name tells Miller that "all the significant Factory regulars in 1965 had the same red-and- white striped shirt". It is the classic Breton, however, which best encapsulates the look of Warhol, and of Edie Sedgwick, whom Warhol met in 1965 at a party given by the producer Lester Persky.
Poet and art critic Rene Ricard recalls in Edie, "Edie and Andy! You should have seen them. But you did see them! Both wearing the same sort of thing - boat-neck, striped T-shirts. Andy wore black corduroy jeans, banana-shaped high-heeled boots. Edie was pasted up to look just like him - but looking so good! The T-shirt. The black stockings. Long earrings. Just the most devastating, ravishing beauty."
In May 1965 Warhol filmed Kitchen, starring Edie, Rene Ricard and Roger Trudeau. The film - a crude psychodrama shot on a single set with Edie and several half-dressed studs - was intended as a vehicle for Sedgwick, and throughout she is dressed in the trademark Breton and black tights. This look has remained a shorthand for Warhol's Sixties style, but it was almost instantly iconic. The pop artist Roy Lichtenstein recalls in Edie, "My wife Dorothy and I went to a Hallowe'en costume party given by the painter Adele Weber, dressed as Andy Warhol and Edie ... Andy does exactly what I don't do. He was his art. His studio was his art, and a lot of other people."
Lou Reed and John Cale of the Velvet Underground, a group which was initially styled and produced by Warhol, were also regularly photographed wearing Breton T-shirts. The band had met Warhol in 1965 following an appearance at Cafe Bizarre. He had invited them to join The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a performance mixture of music, films, light shows and dancing. It was Warhol who suggested adding the actress/singer Nico to the band's line- up. A decade later, in 1976, the Velvet Underground were to be felt as one of the key influences on the birth of punk rock in Britain, and the Breton T-shirt followed the music, entering into another subculture of outsiders, in particular in the look of pre-Gothic Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees, whose styling mixed Juliette Greco with pre-war Berlin.
Edie Sedgwick's final celluloid outing for Warhol was Ciao! Manhattan (1971), a sort of thriller shot in black and white and set in New York, in the Sixties, intercut with a contemporary, colour study of a desperate Edie living out her last days in California, beneath a tent that is held over a drained swimming pool. In this temporary home, Edie is surrounded by objects and photos from her happier past, including a Breton T-shirt, which spills over from an open drawer. Shortly after this film was shot, Edie Sedgwick died, aged 28. By then Andy Warhol had moved on, successfully, to a new phase and a new look. Back in Europe, the Breton T-shirt has once more been reclaimed and reinvented in the modern era and again it retains an outsider status.
In 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder filmed a version of Jean Genet's 1953 novel Querelle de Brest which chronicled the exploits of seductive homosexual sailor and cunning murderer George Querelle in Brittany's largest naval port. In Querelle, the dreamlike Fassbinder version, the late Brad Davis (Midnight Express) takes the title role, dressed in Breton-T shirt, long coat and sailor's cap. The film has been described by Gary Morris in Bright Lights Film Journal as a "kitschy wonderland of fetishized homosexual romance, cluttered with archetypal gay imagery from leather men to sailors to a tortured fag hag played by Jeanne Moreau."
An artistic spin on the Breton T-shirt came a few years after Querelle in the highly stylised work of French photographer-artists Pierre et Gilles. In pictures such as Helen et Stephane (1990), they play with the stereotypical perception of the French as young lovers in berets and Breton T-shirts. In 1990 Pierre et Gilles produced, for a book cover, a portrait of the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier wearing a Breton T-shirt and holding a bunch of daisies, against a background of blue sky and a gilt Eiffel Tower, all within a ring of daisies. Gaultier has said, "I would very much like to live in a world of the kind Pierre et Gilles see, and to be the way they have portrayed me. They are photographers of an especially uncommon kind: true artists without commercial constraints, with a universe entirely their own." Their picture of Gaultier has become the most celebrated image of him.
A version of this T-shirt look is seen again with his perfume Le Male, which was launched in 1993 and comes in a bottle shaped as a muscular torso clad in a Breton T-shirt. His previous, women's scent, JPG, was bottled within a corseted female form shaped "in memory of his well-endowed grandmother", and comes in a casing which looks like a tin can, evoking Warhol's pop-art soup cans. For Gaultier, the Breton T-shirt has become a trademark in his development of the perfect public pop persona, coupled with the kilt, Doc Marten's and bleached blond hair. In many ways, he is like Asterix - cartoonlike, rebellious. And of course the province of Gaul, which was such a thorn in Caesar's side, was essentially modern- day Brittany, home of the Breton T-shirt.
In a sense Gaultier has succeeded in his desire to live like that Pierre et Gilles picture. He is outrageous, but acceptable as only a true pop icon can be, because the world now expects and wants him to be the image he presents - like Warhol. In a diary entry from 26 March, 1985 Warhol writes, "When I wear my Stephen Sprouse jackets, I think I finally look like people want Warhol to look ... " As a contemporary aside, Gaultier's recent magazine advertisements featured an illustration of two women: in the foreground Juliette Greco, and in the background, Audrey Hepburn. The story comes full circle.
The Breton T-shirt can be worn with no regard or knowledge of its history or status or it can be worn precisely with the intention of imbuing the wearer with the associations of all those who have worn it before. It is both a cliched way of "doing French" and a garment that is still as everyday French as a packet of Gauloise or Gitanes, with which, in terms of iconography, it has much in common - all manage to retain their status despite mass production. The Breton T-shirt remains a badge of the outsider despite also being available in various guises and cuts by a host of fashion designers, from Paul Smith (for whom the top has remained a collection staple) to Agnes B, and by mail order to the wearers of catalogue-casuals. It crosses gender and sexuality, and it continues to step from deck to dock, from studio to street.
A version of this article first appeared in `Influence'. For details write to `Influence', Burbage House, 83 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3BSReuse content