Maritime history has always influenced fashion - and no object more so than the Breton Top. Following her talk at our LGBT History Month event we catch up with author and historian, Amber Butchart, to trace the history of the famous stripes.
The relationship between stripes and the sea goes back a very long time. The striped top - what we know today as a Breton - has become a marker of effortless chic, but it started off life as a humble fishing shirt, an extra knitted layer that provided much needed warmth.
Stripes were popular among mariners as they were highly visible if a man were to fall over board. 18th century seamen wore vertically striped trousers, and Nelson even had a pair of striped stockings in 1797 (below left). They weren’t even regulation uniform! But they fed into the fads for striped hose that had been in and out of favour for men of fashion since the 17th century. Thanks to breeches, men’s legs were on display at this time and just begging to be decorated.
Throughout the 19th century many technological innovations were made that meant knitting stripes in the round was easier than ever before. These stockings (above right) from the Met Museum are one of my favourite examples.
The link between stripes and the sea was cemented when the striped undershirt became part of the official French naval uniform in 1858. The uniform regulations for the ‘tricot rayé’ were meticulous, listing the exact number of stripes that could appear on the body and sleeves.
By the end of the century stripes were a popular choice for swimwear (which was also knitted) along the coasts of Europe - no matter how cold!
If you search the internet, many histories of the nautical striped top will tell you that it first crossed into fashion via Chanel. However, this isn’t entirely true. Some of the very first clothing items that she made way back in 1913 were based on the clothes of local fisherman, but it didn’t include the striped top. For that, we have an American couple to thank called Gerald and Sara Murphy, 10 years later in 1923.
The Murphys had first visited the French Riviera the year before, as guests of Cole Porter. They liked it so much that they came back the following year and set up home. In doing this they started a summer ‘season’ (previously society had only visited during the winter months) and alongside that came the vogue for suntanning. Sara Murphy’s predilection for pearls at the beach foreshadowed Chanel. In 1923 Gerald took a trip to Marseille to get supplies for his boat, and returned with striped tops from the marine shop for himself and his guests. His guests variously included artists, writers and trendsetters such as Man Ray, Dorothy Parker, Stravinsky, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The popularity of the striped top spread like wildfire. Chanel herself was photographed wearing one the following year at a rehearsal of a Ballets Russes production, and by the end of the decade she proceeded to build her own Riviera home, La Pausa.
From Picasso to Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, The Ramones and Kurt Cobain, nautical stripes have an enduring appeal fuelled by their links to both French elegance and countercultural cool. Far from its beginnings as occupational clothing, today the top is a chic classic worn by everyone from rock stars to fashion editors.
To learn more about the links between maritime history and fashion read Amber Butchart's book Nautical Chic
This blog was originally posted on the site Tilly and the Buttons