From Coco Chanel to Alexa Chung: A Brief History of the Iconic Breton Stripe

Sarah Barnes
From Coco Chanel to Alexa Chung: A Brief History of the Iconic Breton Stripe
25 Start slideshow

If there’s one piece that most of us probably have in our closets, it’s the classic Breton striped shirt.

Typically characterized as a cotton top with blue sailor-like stripes, the style was introduced in 1858 as the uniform for the French navy, possess any serous fashion cache until—after a trip to the French coast—Coco Chanel took notice. The iconic designer was so inspired by the sailors’ uniform that she incorporated the stripes into her 1917 nautical collection. The casual design helped break away from the heavily corseted fashion of the time, forever changing the face of casual womenswear.

As far as basics go, the Breton striped shirt is as necessary as a black blazer or a pair of dark-wash skinny jeans, and like those staples, the allure of the breton stripe shirt lies in its versatility. Whether worn by struggling artists, movie stars,  or modern-day It-girls, the styling choices have evolved over time, but its effect has astonishingly remained the same.

Here, we take a look at how the Breton striped shirt has been worn by such varied personalities as James Dean and Pablo Picasso to Coco Chanel, Kate Moss, Alexa Chung, and today’s street-style stars.

0 Thoughts?
1 of 25

The Breton stripe shirt was first introduced in 1858 as the uniform for all French navy seaman in Northern France. The original design featured 21 stripes, one for each of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victories and the distinctive stripes made it easier to spot wayward sailors who had fallen overboard.

Photo: Gaston Paris/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Coco Chanel drew inspiration for her 1917 nautical collection from the French sailors. The striped top she designed was designed to be worn with flared trousers.

Photo: Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Breton stripe was first worn in the 1953 Hollywood film, ‘The Wild One’ starred Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin

Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

James Dean wore a Breton striped top in the movie "Rebel Without a Cause" in 1955.

In the 1956 film 'Funny Face', Audrey Hepburn was seen wearing black pants, a black turtleneck, and a Breton tee. 

Photo: Phil Burchman/Getty Images

Actress, Ginger Rogers sported a sailor-inspired ensemble. 

Photo: NBC/NBC via Getty Images

In 1960, the Breton stripe was associated with French New Wave Cinema and was a favorite of many on-screen stars like Jean Seberg, who worn the sailor style in the 1960 film 'Breathless'.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Artist, Pablo Picasso was frequently photographed in his versions of the Breton striped tee.

Photo: George Stroud/Getty Images

American pop artist, Andy Warhol stands behind a movie camera on the set of his film, 'Chelsea Girls' wearing a sailor-inspired striped top.

Photo: Santi Visalli Inc./Getty Images

French actress and style icon, Brigitte Bardot frequently wore a Breton striped top.

Photo: United Artists/Getty Images

Alexa Chung spotted in stripes at the front row at the Unique show at London Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2011.

Photo: Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage

A look from Balmain's Fall 2009 collection. 

French actress Audrey Tautou in classic breton stripes as Coco Chanel in 2009's "Coco Before Chanel" 

J. Crew's Spring 2013 collection proved that classic breton stripes can (and should!) be mixed with clashing prints to remarkably chic effect. 

Olivia Palermo attends a private red carpet performance on August 26, 2009 in a sailor inspired ensemble.

Photo: Jamie McCarthy

Designer Jean Paul Gaultier has become a Breton stripe ambassador,featuing the style heavily in both his men and women's collections, and even outfitted his male perfume bottle, Le Male in s breton stripe tee. 

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge attended a SportsAid Athlete Workshop in stripes on October 18, 2013 in London, England.

Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

A look from Jean-Paul Gaultier's Spring 2013 collection.

Taylor Swift performs on stage at Prudential Center on March 28, 2013.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/TAS/WireImage

Street style during Spring 2014 New York Fashion Week.

Street style during Spring 2013 Paris Fashion Week.

Major fashion blogger Nicole Warne of Gary Pepper Girl showcases her impressive Breton stripe collection. 


Russian designer and street style star Ulyana Sergeenko during Milan Fall 2013 Fashion Week. 

Naomi Watts sighted in stripes at The Smile in Soho on October 8, 2009.

Photo: Christopher Peterson/FilmMagic

Kate Moss sighted in stripes arriving home on June 8, 2010 in London, England.

Photo: Neil Mockford/FilmMagic

Next slideshow starts in 10s

The Best Backstage Snaps From Chanel Couture

The Best Backstage Snaps From
Chanel Couture