The Simple Things
Stories of the clothes we love THE BRETON TOP
“No doubt Bretons made the French sailors look crisp and shipshape”
You take the quirks of where you grow up for granted. So, until I left home, I paid little notice to the arcades, helter skelters and donkeys that lined my hometown’s seaside promenade, nor realised the specificity of its smell of freshly battered fish and chips mixed with cheaper-by-the-dozen sugary doughnuts. But, as soon as I left, I missed its uniqueness: not only the novelties intended to entertain bored tourists but the sea itself, and the peace that came with being able to stand and look out and out and out.
I feel that wind off the North Sea in my bones, getting twitchy if it’s been too long since I’ve been able to see the edge of the land. I’ve cultivated an interest in coastal customs that
I’d paid scant attention to while actually living there. And, often I find it reflected in the way that I dress: blue, wide-legged trousers, navy sweaters and, of course, my Breton tops.
I’m far from being the only one whose love of the sea influences the way that they dress. Fashion historian Amber Butchart ( pictured top right), who grew up on the Suffolk coast, has written a whole book on ‘Nautical Chic’. She traces how hardworking wear of fishermen and sailors became part of our wardrobe, from sou’westers to jerseys to Bretons, as the seaside changed from being a place of work to largely one of play. As she explains, technically a marinière, Bretons became the uniform of the French Navy in the mid-19th century, getting their nickname thanks to the high number of sailors who came from Brittany.
They had stricter rules than the tops of today: precisely 21 white stripes interspersed with 20 or 21 blue stripes. No doubt they made the sailors look crisp and shipshape – the qualities that still make them as appealing today, even if the designs are off regulation. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice, whether we buy them from Brittany’s traditional maker Saint James or the likes of Seasalt Cornwall – another business shaped by its locality – who produce multiple variations in organic cotton.
Bretons are so popular among The Simple Things team they can feel like they’re our uniform, too. The tops keep a steady style ship: smarter than a regular T-shirt, less stuffy than a blouse; suitable for both work and play. I can’t speak for the rest of the crew but in the absence of having the sea on my doorstep, wearing my top can be the next best thing. It takes me home – the breeze in my hair, and a whiff of salt, vinegar and sugar in the air – and reminds me of where my heart lays.