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Nautical Fashion, Now and Then

Emily Allen

The renowned navy and white stripe, known historically as the breton stripe, is a universally recurring pattern in fashion found in everything from tee shirts to backpacks to flared denim. Not many people are aware of the historical reasoning behind this iconic color scheme. The first appearances of the nautical stripe came from sailors during the 1800’s, as the contrasting navy and white lines allowed them to remain visible when thrown off the ship and into the ocean. How, then, did such a practical arrangement of colors end up on garments like this $9 tee from Target or this $1,355 Moncler jacket?

Fast forward to the World War I era, a time when women’s daily garb was heavily corseted to appease the tiny-waist standards of the day. Due to expansive war funding, women began ditching the intense and uncomfortable formalwear that had been previously expected of them. Taking note of this, Coco Chanel released Chanel’s 1917 nautical collection, inspired by a recent trip she had taken to coastal France. The collection featured the now iconic breton stripe shirt, catapulting it into women’s fashion and the world of haute couture.

Chanel intended for the nautical, long sleeved shirt to be paired with wide-legged trousers. As the style evolved into the 1930’s, however, the upper class would wear it with blazers and shorts. The style stuck through the following decades, and the breton shirt became synonymous with French chic. It was seen on the most famous and glamorous celebrities of the day, including Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean.

While the course of fashion through the twentieth and twenty first centuries has fluctuated at unimaginable lengths, the breton stripe has proved that it is here to stay. It’s now available in practically every garment on the market, including shirts, dresses, espadrilles, and totes. Its simplicity attributes to its versatility, making the pattern a year-round classic. 

By Matt Bernstein

Photos courtesy of Farfetch, Tory Burch, and Madewell