Featuring in clothing for men, women and cool children in 2015, the breton stripe has been an undeniable favourite with many fashion designers in their spring/summer and now autumn/winter collections.

Labelled by some now as the ‘milk boy design, this distinctive and classic horizontal thin stripe look has been used on t-shirts and tops throughout the year.

It has a history though which stretches back as far as 1858 and ever since, this blue and white sign of the oceans originally associated with French sailors is now a timeless evergreen which makes its mark every few years when refreshed with an original twist.

Where it all started

The original breton stripe shirt was worn by sailors as their official uniform. Introduced as part of the Naval Act of France in March 1858, the tops had 21 stripes; one for each of Napoleon’s victories. The name was coined as it was first worn by those serving their country in Brittany. The design also meant that anyone who fell overboard could be seen more easily in the sea and the design soon spread to all seafaring men of the country.

Breton stripes as a fashion item

The breton stripe first hit the catwalks in 1917 when Coco Chanel launched a nautical collection with tops and jumpers with the distinctive design. It was the height of haute couture to be seen to be wearing and a stylistic symbol of wealth and status. Over the next few years it became the base layer of clothing for the upper classes and men would team it with blazer and cravats and women who were looking to break free of the confines of restrictive fashions would wear with flared palazzo trousers – particularly when on holiday in sophisticated St. Tropez.

The tops and jumpers worn in the Navy next became fashion items in the 1950s and 60s when worn by Beatniks. From high end fashion on the Riviera set in Edwardian times, they now represented alternative culture and underground cool. Audrey Hepburn is perhaps the most iconic star of her time seen to be wearing a nautical classic and this was then to be followed by Andy Warhol and then in the 80s, by designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Even perfume now sports the stripes; Gaultier clad his trademark bottle of Le Male in a breton stripe design as part of his entry to the scent world in 1993.

Use in films

First seen worn on the big screen in 1953 in the Marlon Brando blockbuster The Wild One, Hollywood darling Lee Marvin wore the style throughout the film which in turn led to it being seen as an item to be worn by those with an edgy, risky side to their character. The image was reinforced when James Dean sported an identical piece of clothing in Rebel Without A Cause in 1955. It came to movie prominence again when Andy Warhol dressed his muse Edie Sedgwick in a breton top in the 1965 art cinema classic Kitchen.

Modern take on 150 year old classic

The breton stripe has been reinvented for the 21st century and is often sported by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung as capsule items. Now offered in other shades as well as navy blue, seeing boat neck tops in red, green or yellow and white opens up the next chapter in this eponymous fashion statement with very humble origins.