French Fashion: The Origins of the Blue Shirt

The striped and storied tee-shirt is as ubiquitous to the French as their baguettes.  In summer, regardless of where you are: Paris, Provence or the Cote d’Azur, you will find yourself surrounded by a unisex multitude of striped tee-shirts.  This is not without irony since the first striped shirts were made for seafarers and designed to make it easier to spot a “man overboard.” Now they make it easier to get lost in a crowd.

Of course one may find a striped Breton-like shirt around the globe and in every color, stripe configuration and price point, but a Breton is to tee-shirts as Hermès is to scarves—a wardrobe investment in quality, authenticity and craftsmanship.  If we buy a “real” Breton will we be noticed for our insouciant chic?  Will paying upwards of $125 for a tee-shirt insure an air of je ne sais quoi? If we tie a little scarf around the neck will our style appear effortless?  Why not?  Just don’t forget to buy a baguette.

As one who always skips the first chapters of a biography, the ancestry part, waiting till the end to go back and read the beginning; I am tempted to try that technique as a writer.  Of course, if you don’t go back, you’ll be missing the point of the importance of tradition and enduring quality which is the point of the Breton (also called “mariniere”).

Much of today’s clothing starts life as a chemical. Not so with the Breton.  The first Bretons–and some to this day–started life as a sheep’s coat.  This was in the village of St. James in 1160. It wasn’t until 1858 when the striped Briton became a part of the official uniform of the French navy.  Now—a big “fashion forward” leap to 1880 when a spinning mill called “Moulin du Prieur” changed its name to “Saint-James Mills Ltd.”  It took a lot of itchy years until 1970 when expressed in jersey—not wool.  Chanel in this, as in much that she did, liberated the Belle Epoque constriction of the  female form” as she lead the march toward female independence with the androgynous striped shirt.  Of course, she often wore the tee shirt with pearls!

The Storied Stripe

In his 2003 book, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes (really a stripes exposè), Michel Pastoureau reveals the sordid history of the stripe.  The wide stripes were originally worn by jesters, wandering minstrels, madmen and lepers.  Just as stripes were worn to identify man overboard they were also used through history to identify jailbirds. The stripe was not a style. It was a warning.

Respect for the St. James label grows as one learns more about its evolution.  The French state grants only 43 haute couture  (EPV) Enterprise du Patrimoine Vivant Haute Couture and tready to wear heritiage brands for traditional skills.  Incredibly, this is in large part for the raccoutrage (mending) phase of the production, during which impurities are removed and any flaws are mended.  This is a skill that requires two years of training, and that only ten people in the world (all women) possess today.

In 2005, St. James was awarded the “Ethic and Governance” trophy by the business school Ecole des Dirigeants et des Créateurs d’entreprise (EDC). One way to get this award for a striped shirt is to be sure that the background of white is 2cm and for blue 1cm. On the sleeve, this translates to 15 white stripes and 14-15 blue stripes on each sleeve. The unmistakable logo is on the left sleeve. (Show logo)

To this day a Breton for both men and women must cover the lower back and the top could never be so loose that it would catch on anything.

In the rarified atmosphere of authenticity and quality, nothing is sold “as is.”


The Future

Today, the brand is experiencing double-digit growth worldwide.  Despite a saturated market of fast fashion-copycats.  This is due, in part to its commitment to a relatively slow output of just two collections per year. It is engaged in creative collaborations with Coach, J. Crew, Claudie Pierlot, and Le Slip Français.


A fashion oxymoronic fact: Jean Paul Gaultier requires his press team to wear stripes during their runway shows. The designer himself is often found wearing his trademark Breton striped top and kilt.  In 2010 he even turned his hand to interior design to re-design the former apartment of famed French architect Jacques Carlu, situated in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris. Signature nautical stripes were used all over the apartment, resulting in an interesting monochromatic look.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close