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The history of the Breton

February 07 2020 – Mercantile London

The history of the Breton

The history of the Breton

Like most great fashion classics la marinière (the sailor) or Breton was designed with practicality in mind and has a history that stretches back to 1858 when it became the official uniform for certain sections of the French navy.

A practical long sleeved over-shirt, it was intended to be worn as an extra layer for warmth and the original Breton was made from sheep wool and constructed with a tight stitch which assisted in keeping the sailors protected from the cold and rain.

The stripes of navy and white adhered to a strict amount and placement (twenty navy stripes spaced twenty millimetres apart front and back and fourteen navy stripes on the arm, spaced at the same intervals) and helped to identify sailors rank, whilst supposedly making them easier to see if they went overboard.

Spotting the Breton on the sailors and working men long the French coastline, the garments began to be seen on visiting holiday makers who also happened to be artists, writers and ‘celebrities’ of the day. Later, Coco Chanel who was often seen in the garment, produced a version of la marinière for her collection keeping the practical and comfortable nature of the original.

Adopted as the uniform of the beatnik counterculture and seen on Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, the Breton style was showcased when the garment was chosen for the character of Patricia, played by Jean Seberg, in Jean Luc Goddard's classic 1960 French New Wave film, Breathless.

The Breton style gave rise to various interpretations and continued to be embraced through the decades, representing an example of alternative, casual French style which carries on to this day, transcending fashion and returning to its timeless roots.


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