The Breton Shirt Gets a Colorful Revamp for Pride Month

The Breton striped shirt is a symbol of female emancipation, and is being revisited in the colors of the rainbow for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots which launched the gay rights movement in the United States.
Courtesy of MoMA Design Store

Five hundred multicolored striped shirts have been delivered to the MoMA Design Store in New York, where the blue and white version has been sold since 2017. The Breton brand Armor-Lux, founded in Quimper in 1938, received the order. “The MoMA’s initiative is really in line with our values,” said the company’s director in an interview with French daily newspaper Ouest France. “It’s also a great way to fly in the face of Donald Trump, whose administration has just banned U.S. embassies from flying the rainbow flag [the symbol of the LGBTQ community since 1978] during Pride Month.”

Before showcasing the rainbow colors of Pride and even before becoming a symbol of feminist resistance during the 1910s, the striped sweater was a work garment. In fact, it has been keeping Breton sailors warm for centuries. In 1858, an official decree from the French navy made it part of crews’ uniforms. Military regulations stipulated that the jersey sweater had to feature precisely “21 white stripes, 0.8-inches wide, and 20 or 21 blue stripes, 0.4-inches wide.” Its three-quarter-length sleeves could not stick out of the standard-issue peacoat, and its collar had to be worn “up to the top of the neck.”

It was not until the 1910s that Coco Chanel made the striped sweater into a prestige piece, and seafaring style soon raged in the French capital. In the chic seaside town of Deauville where she had a boutique, Coco Chanel made a political statement by appropriating this male work garment. The designer found alternatives to the bathing suit – that she saw as the embodiment of a certain vulgarity – and the corset – a piece that caused suffering and discomfort. Throwing convention to the wind, Coco Chanel proudly wore her take on the striped sweater – a silk blouse with a sailor’s collar – during her walks along the beach during the interwar period, drawing incredulous stares from passers-by. After being part of the military dress code, the sweater became synonymous with insubordination.

The Nouvelle Vague Style

In the 1950s, it was Picasso’s turn to wear the iconic horizontal lines. Both feminine and rebellious, the striped sweater also naturally won over directors from the French New Wave. Godard had Jean Seberg wear it in Breathless in 1960, followed by Brigitte Bardot in Contempt in 1963. But it was Jeanne Moreau, in her role as a liberated woman in François Truffaut’s 1962 Jules and Jim, who wore it the best, matched with men’s pants, baggy sweater, and cap. Some years later, Charlotte Gainsbourg, a fragile adolescent in Claude Miller’s 1985 An Impudent Girl, conjured up images of seaside vacations.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in An Impudent Girl, 1985.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s “Toy Boy” collection, 1983.

Alongside the Nouvelle Vague, we have Yves Saint-Laurent to thank for the striped sweater’s first appearance on the catwalk. In 1962 and 1966, he revisited the baseball cap, the peacoat, the wool pant, the double button, and added glitter to the striped sweater while twisting its design to create a sweater-dress. But it was above all Jean-Paul Gaultier who became obsessed with the it, to the point of making it a trademark by wearing it himself. In 1983 he created the “Boy Toy” collection and dressed men in skin-tight sweaters that ended just above the belly button, thereby combining the jersey knit with punk and gay codes. The sweater became the brand’s iconic piece and has been reinterpreted over the years with an array of materials such as ostrich, lace, Swarovski crystals, and glitter. Karl Lagerfeld, Sonia Rykiel, and Kenzo each lent their own touch, from epaulettes to sequins.

French-Made Fashion

Both classic and irreverent, the striped sweater embodies French spirit and has become a symbol of French-made products through companies such as Orcival, founded in Paris in 1939. In October 2012, the Minister of Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg showed off French know-how by proudly sporting a striped sweater on the cover of the Parisien Magazine.

More recent brands have rolled out the striped knit in a range of colors. Petit Bateau was quick to swap its traditional indigo-blue stripes for black, green, yellow, and red versions. However, for Breton fashion purists, the only authentic striped sweaters are made by Armor-Lux – the first brand to make them, located in Quimper – and Saint James – a company established near Mont-Saint-Michel since 1889.