The French Show Their Stripes

French striped shirt

If you’re looking to add a bit of Frenchness to your wardrobe, a blue and white striped knit shirt could just do the trick. It’s a classic that anyone can wear. Whether you are male, female, young, or old the crisp stripes will add a dash of flair. While navy blue and white are the traditional colors, these comfortable shirts can be found with black, red, and other colored stripes as well.

Sailor uniform w stripe shirt

Sailors

This French classic can trace its roots back to the navy. Before 1858 there was no prescribed uniform for low-ranking French sailors. The officers had uniforms, but the lowly seamen just wore whatever they had. However, many of them did wear the blue and white striped knit top which was already being worn as a workingman’s undershirt. It was comfortable, practical, and kept the guys warm.

Then in 1858, the navy decided that French sailors needed to have an official uniform. And the striped undershirt became an integral part of it. The rules about it were very specific: It must have 21 white stripes which are twice as large as the 20-21 indigo blue stripes. The three quarter length sleeves must have 15 white stripes and 14-15 blue ones. The shirts were long, reaching to the upper thighs, and doubled as undies which weren’t yet in regular use.

onion johnnies

Name That Shirt

Breton Stripes – These shirts are sometimes called Breton stripes after the Brittany region in France. There was an important naval base in Brittany so there were lots of sailors running around in their undershirts.

But these shirts weren’t only worn by sailors: many Breton men wore them to work in. The onion sellers (Onion Johnnies) who sailed from Brittany to the UK wore them, and this helped to establish the stereotype of the Frenchman in a striped shirt.

Marinière – The striped shirt is also known as a marinière. This word has come to mean the horizontal striped shirt, but originally, the marinière referred to the shirt the sailors wore over their striped undergarment. It was a solid color and had a large wide collar that hung down the back.

Tricot rayé – Often this shirt is simply called a tricot rayé – a striped knit. The knit fabric was soft and stretchy so it was easy to work in.

Audry, Brigitte, Coco in stripes
The ABCs of fashion: Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, and Coco Chanel

Why Stripes?

Why did the navy adopt these striped shirts as part of their uniform? No one really knows. Perhaps the man in charge had a keen sense of style. One legend says that the twenty-one stripes represented each of Napoleon’s victories. Another theory is that the stripes would make it easier to spot a sailor who had tumbled into the sea.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel often went to the seaside for holidays and was inspired by the navy uniforms that she saw. In 1917 she launched her “Navy Style” collection. People often think she popularized the stripe top in this collection, but it was actually the large collar of the shirt the sailors wore over their striped undershirt which caught her attention.

Chanel sailor suit
Chanel’s sailor-inspired marinière.

Coco never sold the striped tee shirts in her shop, and they didn’t show up on the runway until Yves Saint Laurent featured them in his 1966 collection. But because Coco was a famous designer and there is a photo of her wearing a striped top, people assume that she included it in her fashion line.

At the time of the photo, it was not uncommon to see people at the seaside or in the country wearing these comfortable shirts. What Chanel did do, was to use the knit fabric (tricot in French) in some of her women’s clothing. This soft, comfortable fabric had only been used in men’s underwear until she got hold of it.

Picasso and Kate in stripes
Pablo Picasso and Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) both sporting stripes.

Modernism

In the 1920s modernism was all the rage, and these tee shirts with crisp clear stripes fit right in. They were especially popular among the artistic types. The Murphys on the Riviera were influencers of their day and Gerald Murphy would hand them out to his guests. Pablo Picasso, a friend of the Murphys, was often seen in one.

In the 1940s and 50s the striped shirt had a resurgence. It was worn in the jazz clubs of Paris, and on the Riviera it adorned Brigitte Bardot. It has never gone out of style since.

From sailors to film stars to fashionistas, this classic striped shirt seems to look good on everyone. The stripes have never lost their appeal and continue to show up on the famous as well as the unknown. They are easy to wear, add a bit of sea-going, holiday ease, and that little touch of je ne sais quoi.

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The French Show Their Stripes
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Margo Lestz

I am a perpetual student who enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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4 comments

  1. So interesting. I had no idea of the interesting history of the striped knitted shirt. I love mine (red and white). The last in a long line!

  2. And that Chanel had nothing to do with that! Fascinating how things we think are ‘facts’ have come about – and your research brings it to all of us who read your blog. I love it. Paula

    1. I actually meant to put an image of Coco’s sailor-inspired marinière in the article, but I forgot. I’ve added it now. She was more interested in the collar than the stripes. 🙂

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