This is going to be the first of a series of occasional posts where I am going to revisit the cornerstones of our wardrobes – the unsung heroes that are the building blocks of our everyday style. I’m starting with the ultimate breton top because when I was writing my Inès de La Fressange at Uniqlo post last week, I caught myself saying that I wasn’t looking forward to wearing breton tops this Spring.
If I’m honest I’ve been unenthusiastic about them for a while but when I started thinking about wearing them with the new cropped ‘Mom jeans’ I have rather than skinnies, I felt as though I could breathe new life into them.
So, I started to pull them out of my dressing room and it was a bit like The Sorceror’s Apprentice. For every striped top I pulled out, I could see two more lurking behind it. For some reason over the last few years I have been repeat buying breton tops and I needed to work out why.
The reason we love breton tops
I think the reason we all love to throw on a breton top is because they’re easy to wear, easy to care for and they are great for layering. Whereas a plain jersey top says ‘can’t be bothered,’ a breton says ‘casual chic.’
However looking at my collection carefully, I could see that no two tops were the same so I pulled out my favourites and then did a bit of research.
The history of the breton top
So, breton tops were introduced en masse when they became part of the uniform for the French Navy based in Brittany in 1858. The stripes were integrated so that a man overboard was easy to spot. The design included a wide boat neck so that they were easy to pull on and off when wet. They were produced by Saint James and were gradually adopted by most sailors and fishermen in Brittany hence the name ‘breton.’
As the railways expanded from the end of the 19th Century and travel became easier, the Brittany coast began to be a popular escape for artists. From the Impressionists onwards it was suddenly a short hop from Paris and they went there to paint because of the quality of the light. Deauville was the most popular spot and when Coco Chanel saw the breton, she incorporated it into her 1917 collection – the rest is fashion history.
Defining the ultimate breton top
Having established that the French Navy breton is the authentic item, let’s look at the detail. The new uniform regulations in 1858 stipulated that
“Le corps de la chemise devra compter 21 rayures blanches, chacune deux fois plus large que les 20 à 21 rayures bleu indigo.”
(The body should have 21 white stripes, each twice as wide as the 20 to 21 navy blue stripes).
Getting right into the nitty gritty here it was decided that a genuine breton top would have 21 navy blue stripes at 10 mm wide spaced 20 mm apart on the front and back. On the sleeves there would be 14 navy blue stripes with the same spacing. The reason behind the number 21 is that it referenced Napoleon’s 21 victories.
As soon as I read this I understood why I didn’t like a lot of the stripey tops I have. It’s because they have equally sized stripes and, subliminally, I knew they weren’t quite right hence the repeated purchasing!
Being a functional piece of clothing, an authentic breton is made of a heavy jersey or even wool. It should hang with a certain weight to it. This is why the flimsy jersey ones never look quite as chic.
So, I have spent the last few days counting stripes – yes really – and I’m sorry if you now become similarly obsessed. We have a lot of bretons in our house, Mr MC has a penchant for them as does the youngest son. I have been through them all and got rid of anything with greying stripes… and the lives of the ones with equally spaced bands are now numbered.
In a bid to replace my classic navy and ivory bretons, I have devoted some time to tracking down the best ones.
Where to buy the ultimate breton top
The original Saint James
It seems only right to start with the manufacturer of the original French Navy bretons. If you dig deep into forums about bretons (yes there are such things) there appears to be some concern because Saint James has recently restyled it and it does not have 21 stripes any more. It isn’t easy to buy Saint James outside France. They have created a collection for J Crew which are heavy textured jersey with the logo on the arm but I wouldn’t call this a true boat neck. They are sold as unisex with the advice to women being to size down. There are 3 colourways: the original cream with navy stripes…(US link)
…or navy with cream stripes… (US link)
or red stripes (US link)
I’m not convinced that these are what I’m looking for. I always avoid crew necks because they make my face look round so I’m after a slashed boat neck
This has always been one of my favourites, it doesn’t have 21 stripes but it is a good heavyweight cotton jersey with stripes in the right proportion and a wide boat neck. Personally I prefer the Winter version because three quarter length sleeves get on my nerves. Some colours are in the sale so be quick.
The summer weight with the 3/4 sleeves is here and it appears to have a nice dipped hem at the back
I haven’t tried these but whenever I write about bretons, readers get in touch to recommend them. It has a boat neck shape but with infilled sides which makes it feel very maritime. It still has more then the classic 21 stripes but it’s close at 24.
A fitted shape
The Boden Alternative
I am not a fan of Boden’s bretons for women. I find the cotton too flimsy – for a breton to hang well it needs stiffness and weight. However – I have a few of the erstwhile Johnnie B versions which I’ve always found to be a better cut. I haven’t bought one since they merged Johnnie B with Boden Mini but they look as though they are the same. A size 15 – 16 is a loose fit on me at a standard UK size 12 and of course you don’t have to pay VAT on childrenswear so they’re great value. Plus – these have 21 stripes!
The Princess Kate
Just two more to show you (in case you’re losing the will to live). Kate Middleton’s favourite here – it isn’t available in classic navy and ecru this season but this charcoal grey striped version is a lovely adaptation and… it also comes in at 21 stripes.
The no brainer
And last but not least, coming in at the most cost effective is this one. A heavyweight cotton with a great boat neck, a loose cut and a split hem – what more could you want? As always be quick – it will sell out fast and already has in some colourways.
Style seminar notes on buying an authentic looking breton
- The most authentic have 21 stripes
- One stripe should be twice the size of the other
- A boat neck works best because it follows the line of the stripes (and is always more flattering)
- The heavier the cotton, the better the look
- The cut should skim the body not cling
- Ecru with navy stripes is the classic combination
- Discard them when the stripes lose their freshness, the whole point of a breton is to look chic and crisp
Apologies to those of you who thought I was planning to give up blogging in my last post, I didn’t mean to alarm you. So many of you play such a big role in the comments now that this feels like your blog too and I just wanted to explain where I’m taking Midlifechic this year.
Thank you for all of your heart warming comments, just the thought of losing touch with you all means I couldn’t give it up. The suggestions for content and structure have been helpful too – I note them all down in a book for times when development work is going on.
Speaking of which there has been some major engineering going on this week behind the scenes to make Midlifechic slicker and faster (sadly it’s the site I’m talking about here not me)! It should exterminate the gremlins that have kept on sending out gobbledegook by email and to Bloglovin too. Please do let me know if you notice any glitches or slow load times, I’m trying to get this site running like a Ferrari.
Those of you who subscribe by email should notice that your weekly notifications have had a facelift. In addition to the excerpt from the post, I’m hoping to be able to include occasional exclusive offers from brands soon. These will often be covert offers, only available to people who subscribe so if you’d like to make sure you get them, sign up here (don’t worry, I won’t sell your details or share them with anyone else).
I’ve published early this week because tomorrow is our wedding anniversary. I have an early meeting in Liverpool and so Mr MC is going to come along for the ride and we will have a night away. We’re going to visit a couple of galleries, do a spot of shopping, have a long lazy lunch and, in the evening, explore the Baltic Triangle.
Despite the freezing weather forecast I’m really looking forward to it. Although we work together every day, we’ve both been so busy that we haven’t seen much of each other recently. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to switch off and let our hair down a bit. I will probably pop up on Instagram @midlifechic if you’d like to see what I’m up to (I’ll aim to post before drinking any wine)! In the meantime have a lovely weekend whatever you’re doing… I wonder how many of you will spend it counting stripes!