The Style Column - In praise of the Breton shirt

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Our former editor-turned-columnist Jeremy Langmead delivers his take on the nautical stripes of the Breton shirt:

It can be a conundrum when an item of clothing — especially one that’s been hanging around as a wardrobe wallflower for some time — suddenly becomes fiendishly fashionable. Case in hand: the stripy Breton top that has become as ubiquitous as a Game of Thrones billboard this summer.

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Initially, when you catch sight of a re-embraced item such as this popping up all over the catwalks, featured in fashion shoots, and then populating the stores, you feel a small sense of nostalgia: “Oh yes, I’ve got a couple of those; must dig them out.” And you do so, washing one, and chucking the other away (after a couple of years that Greggs’ tomato soup stain has perhaps gained squatter’s rights). But then, as I discovered when the summer’s first warm rays kindly agreed to play ball a few weeks ago, quite a few other men had inevitably had the same idea: the local park was awash with nautical stripes. It looked as if Primrose Hill was hosting a Jean Paul Gaultier convention, or the police were kettling supporters of some very genteel football club — the sort that might have an incongruous Michael Jackson statue waving from the sidelines.

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What’s hard with the Breton top is that it can look so damn good — and doesn’t have to cost a fortune (everyone from Gap to APC to Junya Watanabe has made them). It will look stylish under a blazer, will spruce up a pair of chinos, and get you in the holiday mood when teamed with a pair of pale chambray shorts (J Crew have the best of those for this summer). And if you’re worried that you may look a little Jean Genet, fear not: Ernest Hemingway wore them, too, as did Picasso (check out the famous Robert Doisneau shot from 1952, above) and, if he floats your boat, so did James Dean (below).

So, the question is: do you have to forego the Breton top because wearing one is like being a member of a club you didn’t necessarily ask to join, or do you begrudgingly shove it back in the bottom drawer for another couple of years along with last autumn’s unworn harem pants? It’s strange how the sexes deal with the problem in such different ways. When girls bump into each other wearing a similar “fashionable piece” they look delighted, check out who paid the most, and think nothing more of it; us men, on the other hand, wince, sarcastically utter “good times”, and either remove or cover up the offending item straightaway.

A safer, less obvious, nautical trend might be the light knit fisherman’s sweater: perfect for gusty afternoons on Brighton beach, or sundowners in Ibiza. Not the most obvious route for a fashion find, admittedly, but the gripping Danish TV series The Killing this spring featured some very good examples. Although Detective Sarah Lund’s scratchy sweater got most of the attention, her sidekick, Jan Meyer, was frequently seen sporting navy knitwear by homegrown brand SNS Herning. While I got some stick from colleagues for obsessing over Meyer’s knitwear as much as trying to pinpoint the killer, it did provide me with my nautical fix for the summer.

One word of warning, however: as tempting as this season’s summer classics are — navy blazers, white trousers, Breton tops and, yes, fishermen’s sweaters — don’t put them all on at once. You’ll end up looking like Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot. And he ended up sailing into the sunset with Jack Lemmon. Good times.

Jeremy Langmead is the editor-in-chief of Mr Porter