The French Stripey Tee

My last post on style resolutions got me thinking about doing a series on classic fashion pieces. I’ve not been so good up till now with “series”–I get so distracted.

So I was rummaging around fabric sites for some quality striped knit fabric from which to remake a long-sleeve striped t-shirt. I made a cotton black and white shirt last winter, but the fabric pilled terribly after one washing. I gave up, thinking that striped shirts are so ubiquitous I should just buy one, and then I got lost in a sea of online stores doing all sorts of sailor stripey things. I’m a sucker for stripes, but especially any kind of stripey t-shirt. It just oozes French style.

Of course the classic stripe is the Breton sailor shirt, going back to the late 1800s as the military-issue French naval uniform and is now an entrenched symbol of national pride. Famous wearers include Chanel:

According to this article, sales of the Breton shirt have skyrocketed internationally, in no small part due to Coco Avant Chanel, in which a beautiful Audrey Tautou appropriated the Breton shirt after watching sailors on the Riviera. She looked so much cooler than all the ladies in corsets.

And Picasso practically made it his uniform:

The classic Breton fishing shirt, or “marinière” to the French, is made of a thicker cotton jersey, with a boxy shape and dropped shoulders. And although I have owned many stripey shirts, my favorite is the genuine article which I bought from a Brittany shop five or six years ago. I had to have the real deal.

French designers Sonia Rykiel and Jean Paul Gaultier regularly have some version of the French stripey thing. A few years ago Gaultier did a sailor-themed collaboration with the very cheap French chain La Redoute (whose U.S. shop is unfortunately now defunct) and I snapped up one of his nautical shirts.

{Gaultier’s recent foray into interior furnishing, via Roche Bubois. Very cool home designs, by the way.}

You can often find a stripey shirt in the famous French boutique Petit Bateau. They make little “marinières” for kids.

While I had the chance to buy a shirt in their boutique in Paris, I still like the original sailor’s shirt better. I got mine at several years ago; their brand is St. James and they carry several different styles. The classics are the fishing shirt The Meridien, which I have, and the naval military issue shirt with a boat neck and side slits. But there’s a lot more styles and even sweaters–it’s stripey heaven! J. Crew carries a few of the St. James shirts, but at the moment they’re cheaper when you buy directly from France. (And well, you get a package from France, and how cool is that?)

But we can also get into black and white stripes, my favorite, which are less sailor-looking and more French circus. Whenever I wear mine, my husband says it reminds him of French performer and mime Marcel Marceau:

Wear the stripes of course with their classic counterparts or jeans or ankle-length cigarette pants, but I love doing things like putting tux jackets over them or wearing black suspenders (or braces as the English say) and really highwaisted wide-legged pants–then I really look all circus-y.

making my own

I think I’ve convinced myself now that I need at least three more stripey tees. And knit shirts are the easiest thing to sew–trust me. Hunting down good fabric is another problem but if you aren’t as picky as I am you may have a better time of it.

I was finally able to land some high quality black and white striped Japanese cotton, although I paid a pretty penny for it, and it is coming to me all the way from Australia’s Tessuti. And I was also able to track down some genuine Breton striped jersey at the English store Macculloch and Wallis, although they were sold out of every colorway but thick red stripes. But hey, a stripe is a stripe.

On this side of the pond, the only places I have found some good stripe knits are at (search for stripes) and this ebay seller (who carries mostly modal/rayon knits which are often thinner and drapier than the cotton knits).

Some good and ridiculously easy patterns to start with:

Burda’s “Lydia” t-shirt (which I have made and even turned into a dress)

Kwik Sew 3338: see this blog for a great stripey tee made from this pattern

I also loved how one sewer turned this free batwinged shirt pattern into her very own sailor shirt: