Nautical knits, Hollywood, and the nouvelle vague - the history of the Breton and why it's as relevant as ever

'Iconic' is a word that gets banded around all too easily, especially in the fashion industry where it is often used to describe an outlandish look that all too quickly fades out of memory. The dictionary describes 'iconic' as "widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence", which we think can be legitimately applied to one of our favourite menswear pieces of all time: the Breton. It has certainly inspired a number of elements of our collection this season, which leans on the colours and textures of the shoreline. We have referenced the Breton in a number of different sweatshirts, knits and tees, acknowledging its 'icon' status. There are few motifs more eye-catching than the blue and white horizontal bands, and while other patterns can be difficult to wear, the Breton stripes seem to glide into most modern wardrobes with ease.

BLENHEIM JUMPER SIERRA NAVY/BLUE

BLENHEIM JUMPER
SIERRA NAVY/BLUE

BLENHEIM JUMPER SIERRA OCHRE/ECRU

BLENHEIM JUMPER
SIERRA OCHRE/ECRU

BLENHEIM JUMPER SIERRA ECRU MULTI

BLENHEIM JUMPER
SIERRA ECRU MULTI

British losses, the world's gain!

If you've ever owned a piece of clothing with blue and white or blue and cream horizontal stripes, then you can indirectly thank Napoleon Bonaparte. As the story goes, the Breton stripe came into being due to an act of French Parliament, which decreed that the striped knit or tricot rayé become part of the uniform for all naval seamen based in Brittany. One Admiral Hamelin, the Minister of Marine in 1858, wrote in the the official bulletin of the French Navy that, “The body of the shirt will count twenty-one white stripes, each twice as wide as the twenty to twenty-one indigo blue stripes.”

ROBIN SWEATSHIRT ODELL NAVY

ROBIN SWEATSHIRT
ODELL NAVY

ROBIN SWEATSHIRT ODELL OCHRE

ROBIN SWEATSHIRT
ODELL OCHRE

BLENHEIM JUMPER SIERRA ECRU MULTI

BLENHEIM JUMPER
SIERRA ECRU MULTI

At the time, France was still a proud naval power under Napoleon III and the perhaps apocryphal tale is that each of the Breton's stripes represents one of his uncle's sea victories over the British. It's a nice story, but the truth of it is probably far more pragmatic - it was around that time that technical innovations in knitting meant that weaving stripes in the round became much simpler. The complete omission of buttons, toggles, ties and whatever else is also thought to be an expedient choice, in order that sailors wouldn't get caught in the rigging. The fact that the stripes also made sailers who had gone overboard more easily identifiable was probably a positive yet unintended consequence.

 



As with many a modern menswear item, the Breton was initially adopted by the working classes. Up until the 1858 ruling, it was only naval officers who had to wear uniform - the rest of the crew were a scruffy bunch wearing their own clothes, so they must have been thrilled by the news that they would now be supplied with their very own Breton jerseys. That said, it meant that anyone wearing the stripes were immediately recognised as belonging to the lower echelons of a ship, since the officers did not wear the Breton. Apparently even today, officers who came through the ranks rather than graduating from naval college are called 'zebras' in reference to the Breton. 

CONDUIT T-SHIRT ASHAM OATMEAL/NAVY

CONDUIT T-SHIRT ASHAM
OATMEAL/NAVY

CONDUIT T-SHIRT ASHAM SKY BLUE/NAVY

CONDUIT T-SHIRT ASHAM
SKY BLUE/NAVY

LOUNGE T-SHIRT ALROY NAVY

LOUNGE T-SHIRT
ALROY NAVY

Unlike today, the striped look was not considered a sophisticated look in the slightest, not least because it was also the uniform of a host of ne'er-do-wells, including the incarcerated, onion sellers, jesters, lepers, madmen and wandering minstrels. The stripes, being so visible, would presumably afford one ample time to give society's outcasts a wide berth.



Chanel, Hollywood, and the nouvelle vague

The Breton skirted mainstream society for the best part of half a century before one Coco Chanel introduced it as a short smock-like marinière for her 1917 couture collection. She couldn't have read the zeitgeist any better, for women at the time were eschewing the restrictive corsets of the Belle Epoque and were subverting the patriarchal image of woman with boyish fashions that played on androgynous empowerment.

BLENHEIM JUMPER SIDNEY NAVY/ECRU

BLENHEIM JUMPER
SIDNEY NAVY/ECRU

BLENHEIM JUMPER SIDNEY ECRU/NAVY

BLENHEIM JUMPER
SIDNEY ECRU/NAVY

From Chanel and the chic cabal of rule-breakers, the Breton disseminated through to menswear, first through the avant garde artists such as Picasso and Jean Cocteau, then in the 1960s it was the turn of the Nouvelle Vague. The Breton catalysed 'Gallic cool' after Brigitte Bardot wore it in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris and similarly Jean Seberg in Breathless. It wasn't long before Hollywood's icons began to see the pared-back merit of the Breton when James Dean wore one in Rebel Without A Cause. Over in New York, pop artist Andy Warhol was doing his bit for the Breton's proliferation into mainstream culture too.


So the Breton has had quite the rags to riches journey, but now is a firmly democratic piece of modern menswear that has rightfully earned its place in the pantheon of men's fashion. At Oliver Spencer this season, it takes pride of place across t-shirts, knitwear and jersey, redefined in a modern guise that will remain as timeless and stylish as it ever has.


Click here to shop the new Spring 21 collection at Oliver Spencer

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