How the French Got Their Stripes on Breton Shirts

Do French people actually wear stripes? What makes the striped shirt “French” and why all the stripes?

In this post, I’ll share with you the origins of the striped shirt and how it’s actually worn in France today. I’ll also share some tips on how to wear a striped shirt to make sure you look like a fashionable Frenchie instead of a Where’s Waldo outtake.

Origins of the ‘Breton Stripe’:

The striped shirt was originally a naval sailor’s uniform, designed to help distinguish the sailors from the waves so you could find them more easily when they fell overboard. At the time, all the French navy hailed from Brittany, so the shirt was coined the “Breton” shirt and displayed 21 stripes – one for each of Napoleon’s victories against the British.


The sweater was manufactured in both cotton and wool for sailors, but caught on with other workers in Brittany due to its practicality (seriously, what can’t you do with a knit top?). Eventually this became the popular garment for any sailor, not just those with the military.

Coco Chanel Earns Her French Stripes:


On a trip to the coast, Coco Chanel became inspired by the sailor’s clothing and used it in her 1917 nautical line. Chanel designed her Breton top for ladies to be worn with flared trousers as a stark contrast to the then-popular corseted dress look for women.

By the 1930s, the Breton stripe had been elevated to “haute couture” status, making it a popular choice for fashionable upper class ladies.

New Waves and New Stripes:

Maybe they took the term “nouvelle vague” (literally: new wave) a bit too seriously, but the 1950s and 60s cinema in France re-embraced the sailor look whole-heartedly. Breton stripes graced the silver screen and became synonymous with the era.

Both women and men sported the signature look and soon even hollywood was playing along.


It was clear the stripes had become a real fashion staple.

The French Closet

Breton striped shirts these days are a closet essential, just like a black tee; they are as plentiful as baguettes on the streets of Paris.

Ladies can use a traditional Breton boat-neck tee or play with the pattern on other closet staples, like this awesome boyfriend blazer/ sweater on Betty from le blog de betty.


So there you have it! A naval uniform turned fashion staple! But use this staple wisely.

Here’re some tips to avoid the Waldo look:

Don’t make it gimmicky. This is certainly a piece that can go WAY over the top. If you pair a French striped shirt with a beret, everyone in Paris will surely laugh at you or think you’re on your way to get your mime makeup done.

When you wear a Breton top, make sure you pair everything else way down, like the lovely Parisians in the photos above.

Be aware that horizontal stripes make you look wider. Is this a cruel trick by skinny French girls to keep normal sized gals out of the cool kids club? Maybe. But you can still wear a Breton stripe as long as you pay attention to your figure. Form fitting horizontal stripes often make you look wider than something a bit more loose at the waist, so avoid the stuffed sausage look and go for comfort like Coco Chanel in that first picture.

If you’re looking to minimize the widening even more, getting a striped shirt where the thicker stripe is the darker color (navy or black) will help. I like Everlane’s breton striped top (pictured left) or this v-neck top from Madewell.

Tucking the shirt in a bit in the front can also help eliminate horizontal lines across the tummy.

Remember: you are not a Zebra. Camouflage is not your end-goal. Don’t wear head-to-toe stripes unless there’s some massive difference in scale between the top stripes and the bottom stripes. There’s nothing worse than looking like you just got released from cartoon prison.

Wear navy and cream or gray stripes instead of straight black and white stripes. This reduces the risk of looking cartoony, but you’ll still look Parisian chic. The black stripes tend to have that mime-y/ beatnik feel that can make them look a bit more costume-y. Navy stripes may be a bit more nautical, but that’s because they are! Remember, you’re paying a little homage to the sailors… hello, boys!


I’ll leave you with this last little blog for stripe-inspiration: la mariniere.

Follow these simple guidelines and you’re sure to rock the Breton stripe in Paris or wherever you live!

What are your thoughts on Breton stripes? Do you love ’em or hate ’em? Let me know how you keep French stripes chic in the comments!