La marinière (the French sailor shirt)

Today, let’s talk fashion. Let’s talk la Marinière, known the world over as “the French sailor shirt,” or “the Breton shirt,” (named after Brittany, the rugged coastal region in Western France.)

Every spring and summer, the striped navy and white shirt returns on runways and in the street. French women refer to it as un basique – a basic but essential piece in their wardrobe. A timeless classic, versatile and adaptable, la Marinière looks good on everyone.

Gratuitous dog shot– because I love dogs!
Another dog shot — because I can!

Some claim la Marinière – and by extension, everything striped and nautical – has been overdone in recent years. Are we headed for a Breton stripe overdose?

No matter. I own at least six Marinières in different colors and styles. Most have come from France, but it would have been easy finding them here. American prêt-à-porter collections typically include at least one or two models of French sailor shirts in the spring and summer. When la Marinière is mentioned, people usually credit Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel for being the first designer to showcase the Breton shirt, and they are correct. In 1913, the budding designer opened a boutique in Deauville, the fashionable seaside resort town in Normandy. While exploring the region’s expansive beaches and quaint fishing towns, she became enamored with the simple elegance and comfort of the jersey striped shirts worn by local sailors and fishermen.  The Breton shirt fit the bill of what would become Chanel’s trademark:  a very unique blend of feminine, yet comfortable clothes often inspired by men’s wardrobes. One can imagine what this new-found freedom meant to women at the turn of the 20th century: Most were still constrained in stiff corsets, intricate dresses and ornate hats, a legacy of la Belle Epoque fashion trends.

“Belle Epoque” beauties about to be rescued by Chanel!
Coco Chanel in the 1930s
Audrey Tautou is Coco Chanel in Coco Before Chanel, 2009

Chanel made the Breton shirt famous among the French upper classes, but the striped nautical style had been around for a while in trendy European coastal resort towns. At the turn of the century, stripes were everywhere: on towels, on beach tents, and even on the long, conservative-looking bathing suits.

Famous beach tents in Dinard (Brittany)
Royan beach (Jacques Henri Lartigue, 1924)
French Atlantic Coast, 1912

Going back even further, it can be argued that the first Marinières belonged to sailors, and old paintings show seamen wearing them as early as the 17th century. I did some research and found out that until 1858, only officers of the French Navy had to wear a specific uniform. Everyday clothes were the ordinary seaman’s attire on board. That year, a decree defined the sailor’s official uniform in minute detail (color, number and length of stripes, etc.)

Young French sailor in full uniform

There was no stopping the French sailor shirt, on its way to worldwide domination – or at the very least, to French icon status – once Coco Chanel declared it à la mode (trendy.)

In the 1950s, artists and intellectuals adopted la Marinière. Voilà Pablo Picasso, immortalized in his Breton shirt by Robert Doisneau (1952.)

Then came renowned French mime Marcel Marceau, instantly recognizable thanks to his make-up and shirt.

French actress and sex symbol Brigitte Bardot invented an iconic look: la Marinière with flat ballet shoes and cropped jeans.

Other actresses followed suit…

Jean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless (1959)
Audrey Hepburn
Kim Novak
Nathalie Wood

A legendary First Lady, famous for her elegance and sense of style, adopted an updated version of la Marinière in the 1960s.

Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine

Following in Chanel’s footsteps, famed designers re-invented the Breton shirt. In the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent launched elegant collections inspired by the nautical style.

Catherine Deneuve, Cannes Film Festival, 1966

One generation later, Jean-Paul Gaultier adopted the nautical stripe as his trademark. It seems Monsieur Gaultier never met a personality or object he he did not make over in his signature style. Take a look…

Dabbling in interior design…
Dressing European royalty…
Fighting HIV with former French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy
Venturing into car design… Smart Fortwo (Montreal, 2011)

Yes, la Marinière (and the nautical style it inspired) are here to stay. Fans of the striped shirt do not have any problem getting their fix. At one point or another, most prêt-à-porter brands will add it to their collections. In France, several prominent companies offer quality products. My favorite brand is St James, but Armorlux and Petit Bateau are worthy competitors.

As for me, I will hang on to all of these…

… hoping to look more like this…

Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) in Paris
Sex and the City

… and hopefully staying away from that…

What about you? Vous aimez la Marinière? Do you like the French sailor shirt?

A bientôt.

Update: Every time I share this story, readers ask me what my favorite French Marinière brand is. Easy: Armor Lux. Their new collection is up. Check them out here. — Merci, French Girl in Seattle 
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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)


  • HI Veronique, so great to have found your beautiful blog. La Marinere is back in fashion in Paris. Everyone has one on!! Great post Carla

  • oh v ANOTHER ONE BEYOND WORDS…as soon as i saw the picture i sighed a very long heavy sigh and looked at the all pictures first…..just fabulous-j crew carried a few st james’ items in the spring of this year but i purchased the few items i have from a store in brittany- i call them my belle isle – i tend to be a purist in such matters and only have the navy strip with white or creme as ALWAYS with gratitude for all the time and attention to detail-have a wonderful week and one question, will you be doing anymore translation posts for us life long learners of this confusing frustrating BUT EVER SO BEAUTIFUL language? i sure hope so my studies have frustrated me this fall to the point of almost throwing in the towel-alas a “comment” for another time-THANKS AS ALWAYS-g

  • Ah! Thanks for making Halloween seen like summer in France. My favorite La Mariniere was purchased on L’ile d’Yeux almost a decade ago and is still looks as good as the day I bought it!

  • One of my all time favorite looks, always fresh looking. But you’re are right, we need to keep the look more similar to SJP, than the other options. Thank you for sharing the French term for the small liquor bottles! Happy Halloween.

  • Bonjour! I have just stumbled across your wonderful blog and become a follower. I spotted your photo of Royan (a place I have often visited during my year in Saintes and many times since) I’m a true francophile and will look forward to your posts. Merci.
    PS I shall add you to my list of favourite blogs on my blog!

  • Mais où trouves-tu l’inspiration pour tes posts?! A chaque fois, c’est quelque chose de tellement evident qu’on se demande pourquoi on ne s’est pas posé la question soi-même!et on est content que ce soit toi qui ait fait les recherches , et eclairé tout ça!
    Pour la marinière, venant d’une famille de marins, j’apprécie encore plus! j’ai toujours celle de mon père, avec laquelle il a fait le tour du monde , dans les années 50!Donc, un post qui me touche particulièrement!
    A bientôt!

  • Dearest Véronique,

    Another lovely post! We did adopt so many styles from France, often unknowingly to lots of people.
    Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention!
    Have a great week and stay warm.

    Love to you,


  • I knew Chanel had popularized the look, but I did not realize it went back even further than that! Excellent post. Just looking at all the celebrities wearing it throughout the years makes me realize what an important influence in fashion it really made. That’s kind of incredible!

    Oh, and that photo of Picasso in front of the window is a bit frightful, is it not? Lol.

  • Yes! I am a big fan of the French sailor shirt. Why don’t I wear it? Because I think it makes me look fat. There should be less pastries on my table.

  • I wandered over here from Owen’s blog site, and its been a treat. And now I simply MUST have one of those sailor shirts! Especially the one Bardot was wearing! (I am sentimental this way)

    I’ve only been to Seattle once, after an all night drive down through British Columbia. Mt. Rainier was a blushing pink ice cream sundae in the sunrise. And sea lions were basking on rocks in Coos Bay. These things, and the intoxicating smell of the fish markets are all I remember now.

  • Now I am living in France I need to add one of these to my wardrobe to prove I belong!! Thanks for another fascinating post about a french icon – I hope this series will run and run!! Greetings from the Riviera…

  • Oh I have always wanted one of these shirts. Promise me I’ll look like Audrey, or Catherine, or Natalie….and not the to convicts with the ball and chain! LOL

  • I love breton shirts – I could basically wear them almost every day 🙂 Love all these inspiration photos – Jackie O’s was my fave (love her sunglasses too!)

  • You bet I love la mariniere! I had one in college along with a navy blue skirt…and I felt oh, so French…. I still have one….

    Your photo history of la mariniere is excellent.

  • Mon Dieu! Look at all these comments, in just two short days! Merci to all of you for visiting. I can see that a majority of you already own a “Mariniere,” whether you wear it or not. Some of you are now officially considering purchasing one – if my post talked you into it, I am tres honored 😉 – As I wrote in the story, I will hang on to mine, even if they tell you that horizontal stripes are not “a woman’s best friend.” — Thanks again. Come back soon! Veronique

  • Oh dear, I am crestfallen to admit that I haven’t even one such shirt in my wardrobe… despite the abundance of them on sale where we go every summer in Brittany, at the local market… May have to rectify that lacune sometime soon. I love your dog, because you can… but couldn’t you find even just one cat in a sailor shirt ? For faire and balanced reporting ? 🙂 (Just kidding, our two cats were jealous of the dogs included here…)

  • Je pense que le t-shirt ou pull marin à rayures est intemporel. Il se fera toujours et ne sera jamais démodé. Ce qu’il faudra, Véronique, c’est l’agrandir au fil des ans, afin que nos petits ventres soient à l’aise. 🙂

  • Je suis en retard lire cette blog, je suis desolee! Tres bien toujours. I had such fun buying my “mariniere” shirt in St. Tropez with Marita. The sales woman was so friendly and spoke little English so we spoke in French avec hand motions, bien sur! I had my picture taken with her, I must show you. I will not forget this experience in St. Tropez. Years ago in Venice, Steve bought a “mariniere” shirt Italian style a la the gondoliers, not knowing the Italians apparently copied the French! Mon dieu! Fun stories you tell, continuez s’il vous plait!

  • I’m having such a good time scrolling down through all these fabulous posts, that I’ve not even taken time to comment on each of these. Know that I’m totally enjoying the visit this Thanksgiving today. Wanted to say, another of these classics returned home with me after my fall visit to Brittany. This year, pink and white with a soft t-scarf to match. I’ll be keeping all the ones I’ve bought previously too. 😉 ~ Sarah

  • Amazing post. Interesting and informative from beginning to end. I never comment on blogs, but I felt compelled to say,”Well done.”. Thanks for the help.

  • Yes! Yes! I love the Breton shirt or Mariniere! The little Yorkie in your photo is very chic. I just want to hug him! I too adore dogs. I do not currently own even one mariniere, and i must remedy the situation immediately. Monday, as tomorrow is Easter. I would love to look like Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve in one, but alas.. 😀 Yet another fabulous post Veronique. They are obviously your forte. Yours is one of my fav places to visit. Happy Easter and Springtime to you!


  • Trying to explain the French sailor shirt (which she was wearing) to a co-worker and found your wonderful blog entry. Thank you!

  • Quand je vivais dans le Gard en 1974, il m’a fallu acheter deux choses avant de rentrer chez moi aux E-U, ma croix huguenote et ce «tee-shirt» (version cadet) iconique! Je les ai tous les deux jusqu’aujourd’hui.

  • Thanks for your reply. I hope to order a couple soon and would like to see colors, styles, prices etc.
    love the pictures of your company’s shirts, dresses and sweaters. Please do reply to my email.
    Thank you very much! Marla Kay

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