Ah, the French Mariniere… Known by many names, sailor’s shirt, French Navy shirt, Breton, or simply boat shirt, it’s a piece of effortless chic that has found it’s way it’s into stylish closets for decades.
Loving things both nautical and French it’s not surprising I was captivated at first sight. But what is it about this iconic blue and white stripe shirt that constantly draws legions of fans? Actors, artists, musicians, models, intellectuals and even bikers all have embraced it over the years. It probably reached it’s zenith in the 50s, a style decade for which I have a particular affinity.
This was the time when Brigitte Bardot and Pablo Picasso wore them as signature pieces. Edith Head paid homage in the movie classic To Catch a Thief having Cary Grant‘s international jewel thief character wear it with a rakish red scarf. A few years earlier James Dean donned one for Rebel Without A Cause. Audrey Hepburn wore them on screen and off.
The popularity of the Mariniere hasn’t waned much if at all with modern fashionistas like Alexa Chung, Kate Moss, Olivia Palermo and of course Emmanuelle Alt sporting them. I love that Sofia Coppola, one of my favorite modern renaissance women, is also a fan.
Fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier is frequently seen wearing the shirt, indeed he has used the Breton as his own personal signature since the late 80s. It’s actually a never ending source of inspiration to him, each year it’s exciting to see how weaves the classic stripe into his collections.
What are the origins of this icon of style? According to many sources the Breton shirt was created in response to an official act of the French government on May 27, 1858. It made the now familiar blue and white striped knitted shirt the uniform for the navy in Brittany.
The original design featured 21 stripes, one for each of Napoleon‘s victories. It was believed the alternating light and dark stripes would make the sailors easier to see in the waves. As the shirt became popular with all types of working mariners, the tradition grew.
It was actually Coco Chanel who gave the fashion world the Mariniere. Inspired by a visit to the French Coast, she introduced it in a nautical collection where it was an instant hit. It’s one of the early examples of Chanel taking inspiration from menswear; then translating it to stylishly comfortable womenswear. I’m thankful to Chanel for many fashion introductions, but this one holds a special place in my heart.