When it comes to design icons of the civilian wardrobe, one of fashion’s small marvels has to be the tricot rayé, or striped sailor jersey, a jaunty, utilitarian-cool classic that has hugged the forms of generations of tastemakers from Pablo Picasso to Kate Moss. In terms of Frenchness, the iconic garment can hold its own with the beret, imbued with its own seaside scent stretching from the Riviera to the Brittany coast.

Recorded by decree in March 1858 as the official undergarment of the French Navy, the original wool-knit naval jersey ended at the thigh with a snug, seamless, tube-like construction and slightly indented round neckline. Its signature feature was a block pattern of 21 white stripes and 20–21 blue stripes with 15 white stripes and 14–15 blue stripes on the sleeves.

An old tale from Brittany attributes each of the 21 stripes to the naval victories of Napoleon’s fleet against the British, according to Saint-James, which has been producing fishermen’s sweaters and Breton shirts since the mid-19th Century. Other reports suggest the stripes were conceived to stand out against the waves should the wearer go overboard.

Some reports suggest the stripes were conceived to stand out against the waves should the wearer go overboard

Experts trace the origins of the striped sailor jersey to the late 18th Century; early versions of the garment featured engravings from the Brittany and Normandy regions depicting fishermen. The first written trace dates back to 1855, in the form of a bulletin listing the contents of a sailor’s bag.

“We don’t know the real story behind the stripes, that’s why there are so many myths surrounding it,” says Delphine Allannic-Costa, co-curator of the 2009 exhibition Les marins font la mode (Sailors Make Fashion), held at the Musée national de la Marine in Paris, which juxtaposed sailor’s uniforms with fashion creations by the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier. (The couturier adopted the striped sailor jersey as his personal uniform, going on to make it a house signature down to the bottle of his iconic scent, Le Male, which evokes a sailor’s torso clad in the iconic garment.)

The striped sailor jersey has also attracted various unofficial monikers over the years, including marinière (French for marine) and the Breton shirt, with the latter possibly inspired by garlic merchants and ‘Onion Johnnies’, the nickname given to travelling onion sellers from the town of Roscoff in Brittany, whose uniform of striped fisherman’s sweater and beret cemented the stereotypical image of the Frenchman. 

Nautical but nice

National pride stirred Europe’s earliest naval-inspired trends, such as the sailor look embraced by the children of well-to-do Victorian families after Queen Victoria in 1846 had a miniature sailor suit made for her four-year-old son, Albert Edward, to wear aboard the Royal Yacht. But the rise of the striped sailor jersey was one of the first examples of workwear filtering into fashion, also serving as a symbol of emancipation for women.

Among the earliest adopters was the French writer Colette – who had a penchant for drag. In the late 19th Century she would attend masked balls in Paris dressed in sailor-striped jerseys, and later on the ‘Paris Interlope’ cabarets of the Belle Epoque, according to Allannic-Costa.

Gabrielle Chanel, a lover of comfort dressing who pioneered bringing menswear inspirations into the woman’s wardrobe, is credited with propelling the striped sailor jersey into the fashion sphere. She was her own best advert, adopting a striped sailor top, straw hat and loose trousers as her resort-wear look. Her first sailor-inspired piece was a smock with a sailor collar made from jersey – a material hitherto reserved for men’s underwear and sailor shirts – that she introduced in her boutique in the upscale northern seaside resort of Deauville in the early 1900s.

But for British fashion historian Amber Butchart, author of Nautical Chic, key influencers of the trend included wealthy US expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose Riviera home, Villa America, was a playground for the Jazz Age social set. (The golden couple inspired the characters Dick and Nicole Driver in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night.)

The striped sailor jersey was one of the first examples of workwear filtering into fashion, also serving as a symbol of emancipation for women

“They set up this amazing home on the Riviera where all of the leading lights of the day would congregate and there’s an account of Gerald Murphy going to Marseille to get supplies for his house and coming back with a load of these striped tops, basically undershirts, that he’d picked up in a boat supply shop and distributing them to his guests,” says Butchart.

“There are images of him in [a striped sailor top] on the Riviera in 1924/1925 and very soon after you see people like F Scott Fitzgerald wearing them – there’s a fantastic image of him dressed in one at the beach with plus fours,” she says of the authentic garment that became a “staple of chic leisurewear associated with these slightly bohemian artistic circles”. It’s a look that has been adopted by artists ever since, including Jackson Pollock, adds Butchart. “Throughout history there have been strong links between fishing communities and artists, with artists often moving to fishing towns to set up artist colonies.”

Mode Riviera

Having bubbled up during the Belle Epoque, the striped sailor top really took off in the late 1940s, according to Allannic-Costa, with two directions at play simultaneously. In the jazz clubs of Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés district artists, writers and intellectuals like Boris Vian, Léonard Foujita and Jacques Prévert donned authentic striped sailor jerseys. The South of France, meanwhile, saw the emergence of the so-called “mode Riviera” for women with local It-girl Brigitte Bardot hitting one of the first editions of the Cannes Film Festival in a red version of the striped sailor jersey.

Stars of the silver screen also helped fuel the legacy of the iconic garment – think Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and New Wave gamine Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960) – that was adopted by the Beatnik community in the 1960s. The catwalk soon caught on, with Yves Saint Laurent reinterpreting the marinière in his first collection (Spring/Summer 1962). The garment continues to serve as inspirational fodder for fashion designers today from Comme des Garçons to Hedi Slimane – now at the creative helm of Saint Laurent – inevitably filtering down to the fast fashion behemoths.

With subliminal seafaring messages woven into its very fabric, Allannic-Costa believes the call of the timeless striped sailor top remains as strong as ever. She recalls the impact of coming across a self-portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe in a marinière following her Paris exhibition.

“I was so blown away to see him wearing one, as part of this poet movement in New York in the 1970s, with Patti Smith,” she says. “There’s this image of the sailor as a free, independent man, an adventurer, whether it’s true or not, and that mixed with these bohemian artist associations is really powerful,” she continues. “And even today, when you wear a striped sailor jersey in the street, that’s the message it gives off.”

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