Longing for Spring & The Breton Shirt

Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a vintage girl, but I have a secret: the most versatile, get-your-money’s-worth piece I’ve ever bought came from Ann Taylor Loft. At this point I don’t even remember how many years I’ve had it; I just know that it still fits and that it can be styled for nearly every occasion.

It’s a long, loose-fitting, three-quarter-sleeve knit Breton shirt. The stripes are thin and navy blue — it steers clear of chunky horizontal stripe syndrome. I think part of what makes the shirt so perfect is that the navy stripes are highlighted with sequins — it looks extra polished for casual occasions and not out of place in more formal settings (add a blazer, tuck it into dark jeans, put on some heels…). Astoundingly, the sequin embellishment has held up, which is surprising for a technically fast-fashion piece (maybe because I never put it in the dryer).

At any rate, as temperatures climb and snow starts to turn into rain, it’s going to be making its usual many appearances.

It’s my favorite transitional piece and, I think, potentially an overlooked basic that belongs in any classic woman’s wardrobe. Trenchcoats, ballet flats, and the little black dress get lots of airtime, but there’s also a lot of history and fashion tradition behind the Breton stripe.

Where Did It Come From?

If you know anything at all about the Breton stripe style, you probably know it has vaguely French, vaguely nautical associations, and that’s because the original, authentic pattern was once part of the official uniform of the French Navy.

It’s also known as the marinière, or the tricot rayé (literally, striped sweater). It was introduced as official French Navy issue in March of 1858, and all Navy striped shirts were to have 21 white stripes on the body, each of which was to be twice the width of the 20 (or 21) blue stripes. Like my shirt, the originals had three-quarter sleeves.

The English-speaking world calls them Breton shirts because most of the French Navy sailors were from Brittany (a region in the westernmost part of France).

We might not be wearing them today — we being civilians of both sexes all over the world — if not for one fashion innovator: Coco Chanel. She regularly took seaside holidays and became inspired by the clothing of local sailors, introducing her own version of the marinière at her boutique in Deauville. It was simple, patriotic, and easy to produce and wear during wartime (WWI). As the 20th century wore on, the style became increasingly fashionable and was sported by celebrities from John Wayne to Audrey Hepburn to James Dean.

Although, as I mentioned before, the Breton stripe doesn’t usually rate with the ballet flat or the little black dress, it’s still considered iconic and has been recycled in fashion house collections over and over again. Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana are just some of the high-fashion brands which have re-introduced it to the runway.

Rest assured, this is a classic piece that will always be in style.

How To Wear It?

To be honest, I don’t think this one needs a lot of explanation — it’s a solid basic that every stylish woman should consider. The only question is whether you want to be able to dress it up or down, whether you want to wear it to look presentable while running to the store or as part of a more business casual ensemble.

Duchess Kate shows us how it’s done below (Harry is literally still in the picture as these photos are from 2016… 😢 ):

And Coco Chanel’s original styling of the Breton shirt is still fresh today:


Tucked in with that belt and wide-leg pants, gotta love it. Revolutionary in her time, classy in ours — Katharine Hepburn would become the best-known champion of the women-in-trousers look (though don’t get me wrong — long live the day dress and the skirt).

Where to Find It?

So I love the piece that I have from Ann Taylor Loft, it’s served me well, but the next time I’m in the market for a Breton shirt, I might consider supporting a vintage seller or more responsible manufacturer.

My choice would probably be The Breton Shirt Co. or Saint James. The Breton Shirt Co. produces in the US, and Saint James in Normandy, France. Both sell nautical-themed apparel and Breton stripe shirts in a multitude of colors and styles.

If you’re in the market for more of a bargain — as always — check out what’s for sale on Etsy. Looks like plenty of these classic striped pieces are available, and it’s a great feeling to support a small business while updating your winter-to-spring wardrobe.

Speaking of, I’m more than ready for the weather to change. I think I’m going to be able to transition back to my peacoat, as opposed to my puffy parka, and this year it’s about time. I definitely love snow, but we’ve almost had too much of a good thing.

I hope February has treated you well — let’s look forward together to warmer days. ☀️

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