Breton Shirts – The Classics and a Short History

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If the above image links don’t work on your device, they are also below:
PETIT BATEAU   |   SAINT JAMES   |   ARMOR-LUX

As my old stripe tees and sweaters are getting faded and misshapen, I’m toying with which pieces will be added to my wardrobe to take their place. I love upgrading wardrobe items as the old ones are on their way out, so I’ve been looking to replace old BR and H&M stripes with something with a little more heritage and je ne sais quoi.

The ones I’m exploring are some of the oldest manufacturers of the Breton shirt…Saint James (which has been the official shirt maker of the French navy), Armor-Lux (which has been manufacturing in Brittany since 1940), and Petit Bateau (in operation for 150 years), which is probably my best bet given all indications point to the sizing running small (they make children’s clothes, with the larger sizes marketed toward adults). All three of these brands still manufacture their Breton shirts in France.

And because I love fashion history so much, here are some fun facts about Breton shirts:

  • The Breton shirt is named after Brittany, a region in the north-west of France (the people who live there are called Bretons).
  • In 1858, French sailors in Brittany got a new uniform – a navy and white knit striped shirt. Original designs have 21 stripes, each are said to commemorate a naval victory of Napoleon over the British. The stripes are also said to make any navy sailors who fall overboard easier to locate in the water.
  • The company Saint-James has been the official Breton shirt outfitter of the French navy since 1889.
  • Coco Chanel visited the French coast, and thought the striped shirts of the fishermen and navy sailors were so chic, she wore them herself (as photographed below) and incorporated them in her 1917 nautical collection. She single-handedly turned a strictly utilitarian clothing item into a chic and vital component of wardrobes everywhere.
  • The 1950’s saw a resurgence in the popularity of the Breton shirt, as hollywood stars such as Cary Grant, James Dean, and Audrey Hepburn wore the stripes in iconic film roles.

If you have a favorite or would suggest a brand based on sizing, I’d love to hear it!

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{source: wikimedia}

7 Comments

  • Reply July 16, 2014

    Cee

    I’d definitely recommend Saint James for you, Kelly. I own the Galathee tee from their collab with J.Crew and they are a wee bit too short on me, so therefore I’d think they’d be a nice length on you. It may be on the boxy side, so I don’t know how you’d feel about that. The fabric is so soft and nice that I put off washing for as long as I could, haha. After laundering, I’d say the fabric isn’t as “fluffy” anymore, but isn’t showing any signs of wear (no pilling, etc).

    • Thanks for the rec. Cee! Can I ask what size you have in the Saint James? I’d like a slouchy fit, but from what I’ve read, the sizing of SJ seems generous (which is why I’m leaning towards Petit Bateau). Maybe they resized for the J.Crew collab? I’ll probably try it if J.Crew brings the Galathee back for fall. You look great in your SJ tee btw! =)

      • Reply July 16, 2014

        Cee

        Measured for ya: size XS is 13″ shoulder-to-shoulder, 21″ in length. Mine looks more like the Petite Bateau version from your image (slouchy, short) rather than the pic of the Saint James Galathee (fitted, longer). Now I’m intrigued by the non-collab Saint James tees!

  • Reply July 16, 2014

    Carol

    My comment would be that smaller stripes are better for petites. Large stripes, makes us petite’s look even smaller than we are!

    http://www.petitestyleonline.com

    • Reply July 16, 2014

      AlterationsNeeded

      Great point, Carol! Thanks! =)

  • Reply July 16, 2014

    eveange66

    True french breton top are supposed to be “boxy” and a bit shirt on the sleeves length: I’ve learned this while I was buying my first breton top from St James. Of courser, if you prefer top more fitted, buy Petit Bateau, but know then that they won’t deserve the name of breton top…. I buy mine at Armor Lux and St James’ outlets in the suburbs of Paris. There used to be another brand called Le Phare de la Baleine: they had also traditional and non traditional breton top, either for adults and children (along with others casual clothes inspired by living close to the sea). But I do not know it it does still exist and, if it does, they certainly would not (yet…???) sell to the US. Fabric used for traditional breton top should be thick and heavy. Otherwise they are just striped tops, even if they have “encolure bateau” or boat necks.
    I usually buy size 12 at Arlor Lux and St James for traditional top and the rare size 0 for less traditional tops.
    Update: yes Le Phare de la Baleine still exists and they have several shops in Europe.

    • Reply July 16, 2014

      AlterationsNeeded

      Thank you for the information! I didn’t even think to look up children’s sizes 12 for Saint James and Armor-Lux. Unfortunately they look pretty hard to find in the US market. Armor-Lux sells them online, but shipping to the US is nearly $40! Yikes! And I can’t seem to find any online for Saint James. I’ll keep searching though! Thank you!

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