How the sailors got their stripes

Stripes are ever-present in modern fashion. Individuals from all walks of life wear the unisex print, which is a key element in a far-reaching trend known as the ‘nautical’ or ‘mariner’ look. But the stripe hasn’t always been omnipresent and neither has the nautical style; the fashion phenomena began over 150 years ago.

The Birth of Breton Stripes

In 1846 Queen Victoria unwittingly sparked the trend when she dress her four-year-old boy Albert Edward in a sailor suit, which he donned aboard the Royal Yacht. This gave rise to a wave of popularity for sailor-inspired clothing, especially for young children. Fashion’s fixation with stripes finds its origin in a garment called the marinière or matelot shirt. This item of clothing – a navy/white, wool or cotton sweater with 21 stripes – was issued as part of the French Navy’s seafaring uniform in 1858. Interestingly, each stripe tallied up Napoleon’s military victories. The simple, practical uniform was particularly popular amongst seafarers in Northern France and was so often worn by the marine workers of Breton that the design earned the epithet ‘the Breton stripe’. 

Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso in stripes

Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso don Stripes

High Fashion Stripes

Although by this time a fairly common print, it didn’t become a womanswear staple until Coco Chanel introduced it to high fashion through a 1917 collection (inspired by a trip to the French Riviera). Her striped sweatshirts were just one of her revolutionary pieces, but one that has remained associated with the Chanel brand.  From the 1930 onwards ‘sailor chic’ was rarely out of fashion. Golden Era actresses, such as Ingrid Bergman, Norma Shearer and Marilyn Monroe, all visited this style frequently and to great effect. Major fashion houses have used the trend more often than anyone cares to count and our present high-street is inundated with all things ‘nautical’. The timeless nature of this unisex trend could account for its popularity – it’s a perfect style for anyone seeking a classic summer look.

Iconic: Marilyn Monroe

The Modern Day Stripe

First on the shopping list is a traditional Breton stripe top. The Original Breton Shirt Company can provide matching garments for the whole family, while Joules has an entire range dedicated to the print. Team your stripes with ankle-length trousers – cream or white ones really convey the ‘sailor’ theme. For a casual daytime look, wear with simple plimsolls or brown leather sandals. This outfit can easily be smartened up with a pair of statement ‘fisherman yellow’ loafers or white brogues. For the evening throw on a navy-blue blazer – or even a denim jacket. Finish with nautical accessories, such as a striped canvas tote, for a ship-shape style.   

Sainsbury'r TU stripes

Stripe look from Tu at Sainsbury's