Named for the French region of Bretagne, the Breton shirt (or marinière) as we know it today was born in the mid-19th century. Fishermen in northwestern France wore Breton sweaters for protection against the elements, but a decree of 1858 established it as an official component of naval uniforms. The body of the standard-issue tricot rayé had 21 white horizontal stripes (20mm in width) and 20-21 blue horizontal stripes (10mm). There were 15 white stripes and 14-15 blue stripes on the sleeves. The term Breton shirt is now used to describe a wide range of cotton shirts and wool sweaters with any number of stripes.
Although we have some insight into the shirt’s history, a great deal of it remains shrouded in myth. The striped pattern may have been intended as a sort of marker in the event that its wearer fell into the ocean. The 21 stripes may have been symbolic of Napoleon’s victories against the British. I don’t suggest that you start counting and measuring the stripes of every shirt you come across. There are endless variants of this style. I recommend Saint James for the most authentic shirts. The brand has been around since 1889, and it still supplies marinières to the French Navy today. Amor Lux and Orcival are also viable options.
As long as you stick to Breton tops made of cotton or wool in classic colors, you’re bound to choose wisely. Don’t limit yourself to the three aforementioned brands. It’s best to get a decent overview of your options before buying multiples. I determined that there are at least 14 Breton shirts in my closet, and most of them are from J.Crew. All of them, except for one, have been heavily worn for many years. This reliable wardrobe staple pairs exceptionally well with slim black pants.