More than 100 years after it first weighed anchor, maritime style is still riding the waves. Fashion Editor Stephanie Smith celebrates fashion’s chicest perennial trend.
What is it about early spring that makes us want to dress as French sailors? Simple, striking, undeniably chic, the striped Breton top is a style staple for women and men, girls and boys, the world over. And it has been so for more than 100 years, ever since Coco Chanel introduced the “marinière” to fashion in 1913, initially as a cool, fun and appropriate piece to wear while holidaying in the South of France, but soon finding its way into the salons of Paris.
Beginning life as the uniform of seamen in Brittany, from the 1850s the Breton captured the imagination as an easy yet subtly sexy sweater/tee top. Over the decades, it became the shorthand, go-to, off-duty look for intellectuals, artists and actors, counting James Dean, Picasso, Audrey Hepburn, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Edie Sedgwick, Brigitte Bardot and, of course, David Hockney as prominent sporters. Jean Paul Gaultier turned Breton stripes into a signature style.
Today, the Breton looks as fresh and style-savvy as it ever did, and is a key component of those eclectically chic fashion collections we now call, variously, “cruise” and “resort”, reflecting their origins as ranges created for wealthy jet-setters of a glamorous bygone era. Resort/cruise pieces are relaxed and leisurely, yet sophisticated and co-ordinating. There is a basic palette of navy and white, but then also monochrome black and white, and all white, with greys and nude shades (like a camel trench coat), soft pinks, paintbox red, floral prints, khakis and checks, all variously thrown into the mix. With a little know-how and insouciance, we can all create casually chic and easy outfits to take us pretty much everywhere we want to go, from deck to dinner, from sight-seeing to supper, even from boardroom to bar. It’s the original, smart, practical, traveller-meets-leisurewear look and it works for all ages, shapes and gender, thanks to a considered, effortless palette and elegant, relaxed lines.
There’s a lot to be said for it, not least its flexibility, which means that each year it can be refreshed and reworked to reflect wider seasonal fashion trends.
This season, take a Breton top or tunic dress, or a navy double-breasted blazer, or a pair of wide-leg cropped cotton or linen trousers in navy, black or white, and mix in plaids and checks, or polka dots or huge dots, or floral print or flashes of neon bright (like a shocking pink or lime green collar, or a bright yellow transparent tote bag or mac).
Bring in interest and colour with feature print and add texture with raised surfaces and distressing or add structure and volume with folds, fluted sleeves, wrap styles and clever layering.
Keep footwear functional, especially if out and about, and look out for rope detail, as bag handles, shoe ties or simply as a belt to throw about your waist.
The stripe can be any, not simply classic Breton, vertical, diagonal, and from striking and bold to subtle and barely there. Not even there at all, if you stick to a clean, crisp, contrasting palette and add a touch of texture or spirit-soaring print. Let the adventures begin.
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