A classic navy and white horizontal striped boat-neck shirt was never once a staple item for your wardrobe. The exclusive domain of Breton seamen, the marinière – otherwise known as the Breton striped shirt – was first mandated by the 1858 Act of France for the exclusive use of sailors in the French Navy. (No surprise there: warm, close-fitting knits made sense on chilly and wind-whipped seas, and the stripes helped make visible any sailors who had fallen overboard.) The original marinière was white with 21 navy stripes – allegedly to represent each of Napoleon’s victories.
Lucky for us, the marinière wasn’t to remain at sea for long. It made its first foray onto land courtesy of Coco Chanel, who was inspired by the stripe-sporting fishermen and sailors on Brittany’s beaches to design a version for her 1917 nautical collection. Chanel cheekily paired the stripes with wide belted trousers and espadrilles, to great acclaim – and the rest is fashion history.
Meanwhile, North American designers like Ralph Lauren and LL Bean caught on to the appeal of all things French, recognized the emergence of a truly iconic item, and acted accordingly. With their easy cotton construction and preppy primary colours, American marinières reconnected Breton stripes to their nautical origins and permanently solidified the garment’s status as an indispensable classic – for everyone from the yachting set to the most committed landlubbers.
Today, Breton stripes are worn by devotees from It-Girl Alexa Chung to First Lady Michelle Obama, and they appear regularly in street-style snaps the world over – yet the garment with humble beginnings still manages to feel cool, trend-immune, and totally fresh. It’s clear that the French Navy, Chanel, and Picasso were onto something: la marinière is a shirt with a fascinating history, surprising adaptability, and a permanent place in our closets.