Why the Breton stripe's style status will never fade - but which version suits you?

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Eva Mendes looks effortlessly chic in a red Breton top  Credit: Flynet

What do the Duchess of Cambridge, Alexa Chung and a sailor have in common? An unlikely little group we agree, but on the right day you could find them all rocking a Breton top. Is there any other piece of clothing that can unite such a disparate fan base? From the best-dressed kids to the hippest of hipsters, the horizontal stripes of a Breton are an undisputed wardrobe staple. But how did a practical military item from France become the go-to piece for fashionistas everywhere?

Decreed as the uniform of the French Navy in 1858, this tightly knitted top was a second skin for those working at sea. And while stripes are now a style choice, back then they were more about making sailors easier to spot if they had fallen overboard.

Brigitte Bardot on the set of Le Mepris wearing a striped Breton T-shirt Credit: Corbis Historical

Legend has it that each of the Breton’s 21 white and 21 blue stripes, in the very specific widths of 2cm and 1cm respectively, represents a victory by Napoleon Bonaparte. But whether this is true or not, the reality is that, since its creation, it has unwittingly become a fashion classic – with a little help from Coco Chanel, naturellement. The designer took inspiration from the local sailors she saw while holidaying on the French coast, and introduced her own interpretation of the Breton in her 1917 collections. And chic cultural icons have been spotted wearing a ‘marinière’ ever since.

James Dean gave it a rebellious edge, Brigitte Bardot made it sexy and Audrey Hepburn went beatnik with it in Funny Face. Pablo Picasso, Edie Sedgwick, Jean Paul Gaultier and Kate Moss have all lent their own unique twist.

Madonna channels some Parisian-inspired nonchalance in a hotel room in Tokyo in January 1985 Credit: Hulton Archive 

The appeal of the Breton is as strong today as ever. Burberry included versions in this season’s collection, the heart-adorned Comme des Garçons Play T-shirts remain a must-have for those in the know, and countless iterations on the high street ensure stripes remain both aspirational and mass market.

So why are we still so enamoured of a simple striped top? Perhaps it’s the inherent Frenchness. Parisian women are revered for their insouciant chic and for those of us not born with that built-in je ne sais quoi, picking up a Breton is an easy and affordable way to copy their seemingly effortless style. For anyone who wants to do French chic right, only one Breton will do: the Saint James. As the label’s current CEO, Luc Lesencal says, ‘Everyone in France has a story about Saint James.’

Kate Moss proves you can't go wrong with a Breton top and jeans Credit: Xposure

Based in the Normandy town of the same name, the company has been in business since 1850, first manufacturing yarns before creating the now-famous wool shirts for sailors. It still makes sweaters for the French Navy, but of its £43 million turnover in 2016, 32 per cent came from exporting its basic striped T-shirts and knits. At the end of this month, for the first time, the UK website will be shoppable (st-james.co.uk).

The label is a favourite with fashion industry insiders too, including stylist to Alexa Chung and Stella contributor Steph Stevens, who’s been wearing Bretons ever since she stole her older brother’s top back in the 1980s. ‘I get mine at Arthur Beale, a nautical shop in London’s Covent Garden,’ she says. ‘I tend to go for Saint James because they’re really good quality and last for ages.’

The Duchess of Cambridge has demonstrated her penchant for the Breton tee on numerous public outings Credit: Getty

Every month, almost 239,000 miles of wool is knitted in the Saint James  factory by workers who train for two years. Maintaining high standards is part of the company’s success and why it has attracted requests for collaborations from brands such as J Crew, Claudie Pierlot and Coach.

‘To the French, the Breton means holidays, sailing, travelling and authenticity,’ says Jacqueline Petipas, director of collections. ‘Saint James is all about simplicity, beauty and quality. We twist our iconic pieces to create modern styles that can stand for many seasons.’

And so the stripe lives on. It’s seen at the school gates, the pub and Fashion Week, lending the wearer a casual elegance that’s hard to beat. As Luc Lesencal so eloquently puts it, ‘We don’t want to be fashionable, we want to be timeless.’

Alexa Chung has been known to style the Breton top in a number of ways, including this St James' crop-sleeved version under dungarees Credit: Rex

 What kind of Breton wearer are you?

The weekender

Dolce & Gabbana tortoiseshell sunglasses, £128, Sunglass Hut; long-sleeved top, £35, COS; wool coat, £350, Jaeger; snake-print headband, £215, Gucci

The school gate stylista

Trainers, £70, New Balance; boat-neck top, £44.50, J. Crew; cotton-mix chinos, £39.95, Gap; gold-vermeil bracelet, £195, Links of London

The street styler

Glasses, £14, Topshop; Comme des Garçons Play cotton T-shirt, £119, Farfetch; Current/Elliott  cotton trousers, £182, Net-a-porter; Polo Ralph Lauren hat, £49, ASOS

The Parisian beatnik

Leather pumps, £80, French Sole; Breton top, £59, Saint James;  jacket, £55, Marks & Spencer; silk-twill neckerchief, £45, Bella Singleton