Today let’s talk fashion. Let’s talk la Marinière, known the world over as “the French sailor shirt” or “the Breton shirt” (named after Brittany the rugged coastal region in Western France.)
Every spring and summer the striped navy and white shirt returns on runways and in the street. French women refer to it as un basique – a basic but essential piece in their wardrobe. A timeless classic, versatile and adaptable la Marinière looks good on everyone.
Gratuitous dog shot– because I love dogs!
Another dog shot — because I can!
Some claim la Marinière and by extension everything striped and nautical – has been overdone in recent years. Are we headed for a Breton stripe overdose?
No matter. I own at least six Marinières in different colors and styles. Most have come from France, but it would have been easy finding them here. American prêt-à-porter collections typically include at least one or two models of French sailor shirts in the spring and summer. When la Marinière is mentioned, people usually credit Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel for being the first designer to showcase the Breton shirt and they are correct.
In 1913, the budding designer opened a boutique in Deauville, the fashionable seaside resort town in Normandy. While exploring the region’s expansive beaches and quaint fishing towns she became enamored with the simple elegance and comfort of the jersey striped shirts worn by local sailors and fishermen. The Breton shirt fit the bill of what would become Chanel’s trademark: a very unique blend of feminine yet comfortable clothes often inspired by men’s wardrobes. One can imagine what this new-found freedom meant to women at the turn of the 20th century: Most were still constrained in stiff corsets, intricate dresses and ornate hats, a legacy of la Belle Epoque fashion trends.
“Belle Epoque” beauties about to be rescued by Chanel!
Coco Chanel in the 1930s
Audrey Tautou is Coco Chanel in Coco Before Chanel, 2009
Chanel made the Breton shirt famous among the French upper classes but the striped nautical style had been around for a while in trendy European coastal resort towns. At the turn of the century, stripes were everywhere, on towels, on beach tents and even on long, conservative-looking bathing suits.
Famous beach tents in Dinard (Brittany)
Royan beach (Jacques Henri Lartigue, 1924)
French Atlantic Coast, 1912
Going back even further it can be argued that the first Marinières belonged to sailors. Old paintings show seamen wearing them as early as the 17th century. I did some research and found out that until 1858 only officers of the French Navy had to wear a specific uniform. Everyday clothes were the ordinary seaman’s attire on board. That year, a decree defined the sailor’s official uniform in minute detail (color, number and length of stripes, etc.)
Young French sailor in full uniform
There was no stopping the French sailor shirt on its way to worldwide domination – or at the very least, to French icon status – once Coco Chanel declared it à la mode (trendy.)
In the 1950s artists and intellectuals adopted la Marinière.Voilà Pablo Picasso, immortalized in his Breton shirt by Robert Doisneau (1952.)
Then came renowned French mime Marcel Marceau, instantly recognizable thanks to his make-up and shirt.
French actress and sex symbol Brigitte Bardot invented an iconic look: la Marinière with flat ballet shoes and cropped jeans.
Other actresses followed suit…
Jean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless (1959)
A legendary First Lady famous for her elegance and sense of style adopted an updated version of la Marinière in the 1960s.
Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine
Following in Chanel’s footsteps famed designers re-invented the Breton shirt. In the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent launched elegant collections inspired by the nautical style.
Catherine Deneuve, Cannes Film Festival, 1966
One generation later, Jean-Paul Gaultier adopted the nautical stripe as his trademark. It seems Monsieur Gaultier never met a personality or object he he did not make over in his signature style. Take a look…
Dabbling in interior design…
Dressing European royalty…
Fighting HIV with former French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy
Venturing into car design… Smart Fortwo (Montreal, 2011)
Yes, la Marinière (and the nautical style it inspired) are here to stay. Fans of the striped shirt do not have any problem getting their fix. At one point or another most prêt-à-porter brands will add it to their collections. In France several prominent companies offer quality products. My favorite brand is St James but ArmorluxandPetit Bateauare worthy competitors.
As for me I will hang on to all of these…
… hoping to look more like this…
Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) in Paris
Sex and the City
… and hopefully staying away from that…
What about you? Vous aimez la Marinière? Do you like the French sailor shirt?
Véronique of France with Véro
Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.