Breton stripe overhype

The Breton Stripe is shorthand for good taste, but has its ubiquity in recent years rendered it boring as hell? How dare I question the Stripe? Because I’ve been seduced by it time and again. My wardrobe doth overflow with variations on the theme. I’m living in a self-imposed Breton Stripe fashion prison and I can’t find a way out.

So, what’s the allure of the Stripe? I think Marion from Saint James, the French knitwear company who’ve been making Breton Tops since 1889, sums it up succinctly in an interview with Olive Clothing:

“It’s just easy to wear and easy to team up. It’s as classic as the little black dress.”

And the history of the Breton Stripe? Traditionally the top is a knitted matelot with long or three-quarter length sleeves, a boat neck and 21 navy and white stripes, one for each of Napoleon’s victories. Vive La France! In 1858 it was decreed in French Law that the Breton stripe matelot would be an official part of the regulatory uniform for French sailors.

So there it was, happily bobbing along on the crest of a wave, when along came Coco Chanel in her chic twinset and pearls pirate ship and hijacked the Stripe for her 1917 nautical collection. From whence the Breton Stripe set sail into the previously unchartered waters of fashion, art and pop culture. Ladies wot lunched on the French Riviera pre-war wouldn’t be seen in anything less than their finest Breton Stripe and wide-leg trouser combo.

Skip forward to the 50s and 60s and a Beatnik wasn’t a Beatnik without a Breton Stripe. Art world luminaries including Warhol and Picasso sported the Stripe, alongside Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and James Dean. And in the here and now it can be seen on the likes of Kate Moss, Olivia Palermo and Alexa Chung.

So, what’s the problem? Well, stepping back to what Marion at Saint James says of it. Yes, it is as classic as the little black dress. But it isn’t as anonymous. Whilst an LBD is like a blank canvas, the Breton Top and all its variants and mutations have a distinct personality. And like magpies swooping on a gem, women (and men) the Western World over have swooped on the Breton Stripe in recent years as the quick fix for their wardrobes. It’s gone from being a staple of the style cognoscenti to being as ubiquitous as Katie Price.

I have my theory on why this might be; the proliferation of information fed to us about fashion and the volume of choice when you hit the shops is overwhelming. We live in a fast-paced consumerist society where fashion trends are created by designers and style leaders, swallowed whole by the media, chewed up by the major manufacturers and regurgitated onto the high street all in the blink of an eye.

For me, a little choice is a good thing. But too much choice causes my brain to freeze up. I can’t think, I can’t make decisions. So what do I do? I reach for something familiar. Something I know will slot into my existing wardrobe. Something that won’t cause eyebrows to rise for being a bad fashion choice.

But the downside is that it won’t turn heads for being in the slightest bit interesting either. The Breton Stripe has gone from being the uniform of French Sailors to the uniform of the sartorially dull.

So today I’m making a pledge. I will not buy another Breton Stripe top until the ones I own have been sent on their way to the recycle bin.  And when I do buy one, it won’t be a high street replica, designer variation or recreation; it will be a classic, knitted matelot with a three-quarter-length sleeve and a boat neck. Something that Coco, Andy and the French Mariners would have approved of.

By JOURNAL contributor

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