The Breton

The Classic Breton T-shirt

Exploring the history and star quality of our favourite stripes

Nautical Design Inspiration

The iconic navy and white stripe Breton shirt was first introduced in 1858, when it became standard issue uniform for French navy-men based in Bretagne in Northern France (or Brittany to English-speaking folk), hence the name 'Breton', which denotes something or someone that hails from Brittany.

These first Breton tees featured twenty-one 1cm navy stripes, placed exactly 2cm apart. Each blue stripe is said to represent one of Napoleon Bonaparte's naval victories against the English.

With practicality afore thought, the original Breton striped shirts featured a wide boat neckline and three-quarter length sleeves, which made them easy to pull on and off. They were loose enough to be comfortable but fitted enough that they did not impede the day-to-day tasks onboard ship.

Created without zips, pockets, buttons or unnecessary embellishments, which could get caught in machinery or snag in the course of a sailor's work onboard ship, these distinctive tees also made it easier to spot an unfortunate sailor if they fell overboard. 

How the the Breton T elevated from sailor stripe to timeless style basic? 

For nearly 60 years, the Breton stripe t-shirt remained the preserve of French sailors, and of fishermen and coastal workers who appreciated the comfort, durability and practicality it offered to those with nautical lifestyles. 

However, in 1917 Coco Chanel gave the striped sailor top (or marinière) some serious fashion credentials by including Breton stripes in her nautical collection. This ground-breaking move feminised a garment that was previously associated with working men. It also helped to liberate women from the heavily corseted fashion of the day and elevated the Breton tee from Gallic seafarers' workwear to stylish investment piece for seaside holidays. 

It's history as French naval uniform and its consequent ascent to become the French It Girl's garment of choice made the Breton t-shirt as quintessentially French as a beret, a string of garlic and a fierce love of cheese, but it's appeal soon spread further afield. It wasn't long before the Breton top landed in Hollywood and this effortless summer style staple started to grace the silver screen. 

Famous Stripes: The Breton's Star-Studded Fan Club

Since Coco Chanel embraced the Breton t-shirt, it has acquired an ever-growing following of celebrity devotees. Katharine Hepburn wore a long sleeve Breton top in the 1942 film Woman of the Year, in which she played Tess, an international affairs correspondent who runs into marital difficulties due to her unflinching commitment to work. Interestingly (though presumably unrelated to the Breton top), this was the first of nine films Hepburn made with her co-star, Spencer Tracy, and it was during filming that they first became romantically involved - a relationship which would last until Tracy's death in 1967. 

The Breton's popularity continued into the 1950s and it wasn't only Hollywood's women who were starting to find the iconic sailor stripe in their characters' wardrobes. Marlon Brando famously wore a Breton t-shirt in 1953 film The Wild One and in 1955, James Dean donned a black Breton stripe long sleeve top to play Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause.

Just a year later, Brigitte Bardot made the relaxed fit, long sleeve Breton tee look incredibly sexy in La Mariée était trop belle (The Bride is too Beautiful). In fact, the Breton went on to become an on-screen wardrobe staple for Bardot, as she wore another in the 1963 film Le Mépris (Contempt) - an intense and tragic love story set in Italy - and yet another in Viva Maria! in 1965. 

Other high-profile outings of the long-sleeved jersey Breton include Elizabeth Taylor's long sleeve, longline tee, which she wore during her portrayal of Fran Walker in The Only Game in Town, and Meg Ryan's relaxed fit version, which she wore in French Kiss.

This is far from an exhaustive list of famous bods who have worn Breton stripes. Audreys Hepburn and Tautou have both worn them on screen and the tally of A-listers who have worn them off screen is pretty mind boggling. Kate Moss, Taylor Swift and Meghan Markle have all been photographed in Breton t-shirts.

This iconic sailor top is one of the simplest designs in fashion history, but it has an enduring appeal that endears it to 'regular Joes' and fashionistas alike. Its style credentials are undeniable, but there is much more to love about Breton tee, as we discovered when we were asked to return to the office post covid. 

A Post-Covid Wardrobe Staple

As we all emerged dazed from months of upheaval caused by the covid pandemic, many of us reached for our Breton tees as the classic pieces to help us transition from working from home to interacting with the outside world in person. Combining Parisian style with practicality and comfort, this versatile wardrobe staple helped us bridge the gap between Zoom meetings in our pyjamas and the more formal attitudes and attire required for getting back to the office to work alongside real people again. 

French Style for All 

Perhaps the best thing about the classic Breton tee is that you really can't pigeonhole it. Picasso made his look arty, Brigitte Bardot made her stylish stripes look effortlessly sexy, Kurt Cobain rocked his Breton top, Kate Middleton (AKA the Princess of Wales, but she'll always be Kate to us) makes hers look regal and Alexa Chung wore hers with biker style leather for a cool and edgy vibe. The Breton tee is a capsule wardrobe essential that can be endlessly adapted to reflect your personal style. 

Quoted in The Guardian in May 2021, Amber Butchart, author of Nautical Chic, a history of maritime fashion, notes that the Breton is notable because:

"It remains one of the few fashion staples that can look both bourgeois and bohemian, depending on how it’s worn – or who’s wearing it."

This French style staple has been embraced many designers since Coco Chanel. Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Celine have all championed the Breton stripe at one time or another, but high fashion's biggest fan of this easy-going Gallic style has to be Jean Paul Gaultier, who has included the sailor stripe in many of his collections during his 40+ year career and famously dresses his Le Male fragrance bottle in Breton stripes too. 

However, French stripe designs are not solely the preserve of the big fashion houses. Like any successful high fashion design, it soon found its way to the high street and has been whole-heartedly embraced by more affordable high street brands. 

Introducing The Ivy Breton Tees

So, the stripes are everywhere and their appeal is evident, but which one do you choose? The classic design espoused by 19th Century French sailors has been adapted and modified repeatedly and we are now overwhelmed with different variations.

Here at Ivy, we LOVE the Breton and have incorporated the iconic stripes into a number of our styles, in a range of different colourways (at time of writing there were 39 Breton inspired listings on our website). We have neutrals, brights, vests, short sleeves, long sleeves, lightweights and heavyweights and all our tees are made from certified organic cotton. Sustainably made in Portugal and sustainably transported from there to our HQ in the Cotswolds, you can be sure that your Ivy Breton tees are a good choice for the world as well as for your wardrobe. 

Style Notes for Ivy Breton Tees 

With so many Breton options available, we thought we'd show you some of our favourite ways to style some of our signature pieces. We don't really believe in styling rules (finding looks that you are happy and comfortable in is far more important that following a rule book), but the Breton is such a versatile wardrobe staple that it can be difficult to know where to start.

Given that it will go with so many garments that are probably already in your wardrobe, we thought a bit of inspiration may be helpful to kickstart (or continue) your love affair with Ivy Breton tees. 

Styling your Short-Sleeve Breton T-shirt

Our Ivy Mabel t-shirt is available in several different Breton colourways and can be styled up for formal or dressy occasions or worn casually for evenings, days off, weekends and holidays. We love to wear ours simply, with a well-loved pair of jeans and a pair of comfy sandals.

Styling your Long-Sleeve Breton T-shirt 

We have a number of different long-sleeve Breton t-shirts in the Ivy collection, from classic neutrals (such as Nora in navy) to vibrant brights (like Sadie in red). One of our favourite ways to wear a long-sleeve Breton tee is to layer it up, wearing it under an open shirt or jacket and finishing the look with black leggings and biker boots.

Styling your Breton Vest

Breton vests are a great summer staple that can easily transition to autumn and beyond with a bit of layering know-how. A white and navy Breton vest looks under a relaxed fit formal jacket, with wide-leg jeans or tailored trousers.

Share your favourite ways to style Ivy Breton tees by tagging @ivy_thebrand in your pictures on Instagram.