The Essay: Stars in Stripes What Do Audrey Hepburn, Lee Marvin, Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Andy War Hol and Jean Paul Gaultier Have in Common? All Have Championed the Cause of the Breton T-Shirt. Trever Adams Considers the `Outsider' Appeal of a Fashion Staple

Article excerpt

Fashionable sailor outfit, Saint Tropez" reads the caption to a photograph of a young man wearing a Breton T-shirt, accessorised with a simple beret, and smoking a pipe in Adam magazine, August 1934. "Unfortunately," states the accompanying article, "we have encountered more than one man dressed like this on the Riviera. We urgently ask our friends to see that all grotesque individuals of this type vanish immediately." The editorial would prove to be in vain.

A sea-change was taking place in French fashion and society, and it would propel the Breton T-shirt from undistinguished workwear to iconic fashion item. By the Thirties, Saint Tropez and the other Riviera resorts were enjoying a new, second wave of popularity. In the 19th century they had grown rich on their winter season, when the monied classes descended from across Europe to enjoy the mild climate in the opulent surroundings of grand hotels and villas. In the new century, fashion leader Coco Chanel began a cult of sun worship, which rapidly took off, spurred on by the spread of the railways and roads to previously inaccessible seaside resorts. A new, summer season was born.

It was Chanel too who would prove to be instrumental in major changes to the way people dressed. She rejected the flummery of the belle epoque for the simple and the unstructured, drawing on traditional, working-class clothes and sportswear. It is said that while she was walking along the beach in Deauville with her lover and backer, Arthur "Le Boy" Capel, she had one of her greatest moments of inspiration. Borrowing his jersey sweater against the cold, she realised that, with a few snips of her cutter's scissors, it could be adapted as a chic, simple woman's top.

On the French Riviera, as American and European socialites mixed in their Thirties playground, the new style coalesced, clothes which were comfortable and appropriate to location, activity and climate - and not restricted by etiquette. It was "the product," writes Farid Chenoune in A History of Men's Fashion (Flammarion, 1993), "of rapid, multiple borrowings from fishermen's gear, sailors' uniforms, sports clothing and colonial dress, both military and civilian."

Sailor outfits were particularly popular: their smocks, tunic-like garments in red or blue cotton with a V-neck that opened squarely on to the shoulder and back, worn over - or sometimes replaced by - the low-necked striped jersey with notched armholes that is the Breton T- shirt. This was typically worn tucked into duck bell- bottom trousers, which were belted with a silk sash and completed by long- laced espadrilles knotted above the ankle. A more sophisticated Thirties sailor style was the adoption of the Breton T-shirt worn with a cravat, beneath a blazer, over shorts and deck shoes, and topped off with a peaked naval cap.

A generation later, the Breton T-shirt had transmuted again. It survived the vagaries of the Second World War and re-emerged as a badge of avant- gardism and youth rebellion in the intellectual ferment of post-Liberation Paris. This was where Jean-Paul Sartre was expounding a new philosophy called existentialism in the bars of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and a new wave of artists were taking to the stage, from radical film-maker Jean Cocteau to actress and jazz icon Juliette Greco (who sang "Rien ne sera comme avant a Saint Germain des Pres").

Within a decade such figures, and the Saint-Germain-des-Pres "scene", had managed to attract a cult following worldwide. "A Frenchman in 1947," writes Andre Maurois in The Women of Paris (The Bodley Head, 1954), "could not arrive in New York, Rio, Tokyo or Bogota without being immediately asked by journalists, `What about Jean-Paul Sartre? And Juliette Greco? And the Tabou?'"

During the Occupation, Saint-Germain-des-Pres had been a Resistance stronghold; post-war it became a magnet for young people who refused to go back to the adult-oriented pre-war conformity. …