When it comes to Frenchness, striped sailor jersey known as tricot raye, mariniere or Breton shirt is the iconic garment, a cool classic worn by trendsetters from Coco Chanel, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso to Brigitte Bardot, Jean Paul Gaultier and Caroline de Maigret.
Traditionally worn by seamen and quartermasters in the French Navy, this long-armed cotton shirt with horizontal blue and white stripes became a staple in French fashion and part of the stereotypical image of a French person, along with beret and a cigarette.
The blue and white shirt became the official undergarment of the French Navy by decree in 1858. A genuine mariniere has front and back 20 or 21 navy blue stripes and 21 white stripes, each 10 millimeters wide, spaced 20 millimeters apart and on the three-quarter-length sleeves, 14 navy blue stripes spaced the same. The original wool-knit jersey ended at the thigh with a snug, seamless construction and a slightly indented round neckline.
The story goes that each of the 21 stripes is attributed to the naval victories of Napoleon’s fleet against the British. Other stories suggest the stripes made it easier to spot men who went overboard.
The origin of the sailor jersey can be traced to the late 18th century and engravings from Brittany and Normandy depicting fishermen. The first written trace of the shirt dates back to 1855 and the listing of contents of a sailor’s bag.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons
The original sailor jersey had various unofficial monikers, from mariniere to the Breton shirt inspired by Onion Johnnies, traveling onion sellers from Brittany who wore striped fisherman’s sweater and beret and represent the stereotypical image of the Frenchman.
Among the earliest adopters of the shirt was the French writer Colette who would in late 19th century attend masked balls in Paris dressed in sailor-striped jerseys.
It was a fashion icon Coco Chanel who made the mariniere an important fashion item. During World War I, Coco Chanel regularly went to the seaside for holidays and was inspired by local sailors’ uniforms. Being her own best advert, she wore a striped sailor top, straw hat and loose trousers.
In her boutique in Deauville, she introduced a smock with a sailor collar made from jersey – a material reserved for men’s underwear and sailor shirts – and launched the “navy style” with shortened jerseys for the ladies, which was immediately adopted by her growing body of followers.
British fashion historian Amber Butchart believes that the key influencers of the trend were, in fact, wealthy US expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy whose home in the Riviera was always full of Jazz Age social set from Fitzgeralds to Porters. Apparently, one day Gerald Murphy went to Marseille to get supplies for his house and on his way back, he stopped by a boat supply shop and picked up a load of striped tops he later gave to his guests.
In the late 1940s, the striped sailor shirt took off in two directions. In the jazz clubs of Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Pres district artists, writers and intellectuals wore it. In South of France, local it-girl Brigitte Bardot showed up at one of the first editions of the Cannes Film Festival in a red version of the mariniere.
When artists such as Picasso or Jackson Pollock adopted the striped jersey it became associated with bohemian artistic circles. In the 1940s artists such as poet Jean Cocteau and mime artist Marcel Marceau were regularly seen wearing it.
It was movie stars who helped fuel the interest for this garment, from John Wayne and Marlon Brando to New Wave icon Jean Seberg whose mariniere in the movie Breathless inspired Yves Saint Laurent to introduce it into his first collection and cause a revolution in haute couture.
Jean Paul Gaultier used the marinière since the 1980s in all its forms and styles and materials and was soon followed by many other designers and trendsetters who eagerly adopted the shirt that evokes the image of a free, independent man, an adventurer, artist and bohemian.
Mariniere became a political symbol in 2012 when French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg wore an mariniere made by French company Armor Lux in a cover of Le Parisien magazine.
The magazine dedicated 10 pages to an article “Made in France” designed to help domestic production and Montebourg agreed to the magazine’s request to be photographed in front of French-made household appliances, wearing the mariniere, and a watch made in France.