La Marinière: an Iconic & Historic French Fashion Staple

by olivia hoffman
Photo by © Saint James

Trends in fashion come and go, rarely making it past a decade at most before it’s replaced by the next fad. However, there are some pieces that transcend time and trends to become iconic symbols of culture and style. Among these is a quintessentially French garment: la marinière.


With its distinctive stripes and rich history, la marinière, often referred to as the Breton shirt, has evolved from humble origins with the French Navy in Brittany into a unisex fashion staple worldwide that has endured for over a century. From the shores of Normandy to the streets of Nice, one can count on crossing paths at least a few times with both men and women sporting the iconic white and navy blue stripes.

As everyone in France begins to return from their summer vacations of sailing on the Atlantic and lounging by the Mediterranean, there is something about sporting the classic marinière that carries a piece of the holiday spirit into our everyday routines. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll start noticing the embrace of the navy stripes spanning the likes of fashion aficionados and casual dressers, men and women, young and old.

History of the Nautical Marinière

The origins of the marinière can be traced back to the 19th century when it was first introduced as the official uniform for French navy seamen. Characterized by its distinctive design of narrow blue and white horizontal stripes, the shirt served a practical purpose at sea. Not only did it unionize the look of the crew, but the high contrasted stripes also apparently made it easier to spot sailors who had fallen overboard, and the breathable fabric offered comfort during long voyages.

In addition to the navy, the Breton shirt was also popular with fishermen in the northern region. Saint James, the Normand brand started in 1889, supplied the fishermen with a marinière made of tight-knit wool that was water resistant and warm – a perfect accompaniment to the 6 months they spent in extreme conditions on rough seas.

Becoming a Unisex Fashion Item

In the early 20th century, the revolutionary designer Coco Chanel transformed women’s fashion into a style that was much more wearable, casual, and… “masculine”. One of the very first haute couture designers to “borrow from the boys,” Chanel was inspired during her seaside holidays by the local sailormen’s shirts.

Transforming the functional garment to a symbol of chic nonchalance, Chanel shortened the top and converted the material to jersey cotton – firmly marking its place as a malleable unisex fashion item. At the same time the marinière’s popularity began widely spreading, the French government also extended the official length of paid holiday time. With its association to sailing and the shores of France, this nautical-style garment soon became of symbol of leisure and vacation.

It didn’t take long for cultural icons like Pablo Picasso and Audrey Hepburn to embrace the marinière, making it a part of their identity and further cementing its status as a unisex and timeless piece.

Famous Fans of the Breton Shirt

Style icons like Jean Seberg and Brigitte Bardot contributed to the shirt’s aura of effortless elegance. Featured in numerous films and photoshoots, the nautical style permeated the silver screen thanks to these aspirational women, adding to the international popularity.

Today, designers like Jean Paul Gautier have elevated the shirt to new heights, offering diverse and avant-garde interpretations. The popularity of his haute couture creations compared with the equal reach of traditional variations by brands like Saint James showcase the garment’s versatility and enduring appeal across generations.

Shop the Modern Marinière

Participating in the everlasting nautical-chic trend is simple and attainable at any budget. Classic examples in a variety of colors are available year-round at Saint James and Amor Lux, while seasonal takes on the famous stripes fill the shelves of some of our favorite brands like Sézane and J.Crew.

Whether you are in France returning from a summer holiday away or elsewhere in the world looking to attain that je ne sais quoi French look, get on board with the Breton shirt and you’ll start feeling à la mode in no time.

Read next: French Seaside Fashion

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