An Ode to the Sailor Stripe

French sailors, American inmates and Coco Chanel

By Mallory Passuite

Few looks have gone from jail cell to Coco Chanel but la mariniere unites French sailors of the 19th century and American rock stars of the ‘60s and ’70s.

Also referred to as the Breton striped shirt and the sailor-striped tee, the simple white and navy blue top remains an iconic, international, unisex fashion item.

The style has once again flooded runways and magazines as a major trend for Spring 2010. But the popular top has a long, and at times conflicting, history that has dressed generations and cultural movements for the past 80 years.

In 1850, Léon Legallais founded the French Company Saint-James, original maker of the “Breton seaman’s sweater,” for sailors in Brittany, France. The shirts and sweaters were manufactured to be sturdy, practical garments for men working on boats at sea.

But, decades before Saint-James, in a somewhat unrelated trend, some badass Americans wore stripes every day:in prison. The stripes on the old prison uniforms were intended to be embarrassing, and symbolic of the jail cell bars. But by 1914, federal prisoners were no longer forced to wear the striped suits, once called “a badge of disgrace.”

Back to France. By the 1920s, fashion deity Coco Chanel introduced the trend of tanning. And with developing transportation systems that eased travel, seaside vacations grew more popular. During one such vacation in Brittany, France in the thirties, Chanel is said to have fallen in love with the Breton sailors’ striped look. She paired a striped sweater with a wide palazzo and the trend began.

By the late fourties, the look was reinvented for a new generation of French beatniks, who were creative, rebellious and existentialists, following the philosophy of the Paris-born Jean Paul Sartre. They hung out in clubs, grew their hair long, wore loads of black, and, of course, Breton striped T-shirts.

The beat generation spread to the US in the fifties, and Americans followed the look. It’s often that cliched look we associate with the French: A black beret, cigarette in hand, and a boldstriped shirt. The rebellious image stuck with the stripe, as it was passed on to rock stars in the sixties (and pretty much everyone else after that).

Though the size of the stripes and the fit of the shirts may have changed a little, the look generally remains the same. The French company Saint-James still produces the Breton shirts and sweaters. Fashion may be inspired by vintage looks, but in some, well-deserved cases, it copies directly.

Prime example: Givenchy’s hottest spring item, a structured, white and navy striped blazer (not unlike the one David Bowie wore in the seventies).

Today, the sailor stripe maintains a dual identity. It’s part elegant, simple and classic Chanel. It’s part rock star and rebellious. Yet forever nautical, and an international wardrobe staple.

Images courtesy of and Multimedia produced by Mallory Passuite

Mallory Passuite is a regular contributor to Jerk Wear.