The Search for the Perfect Breton

Over the years there have been a few items that I have attempted to add to my wardrobe, only to be thwarted by unexpected problems. In these cases, I have spent hours trying to find the perfect item, only to discover issues with fit, style, or material. It is a frustrating experience and one that I’m sure many of you have had in one form or another.

One such item for me is the Breton – a classic men’s and women’s garment that, like so many others, began as a military uniform. The Breton was invented by Saint James for the French Navy in the 1850s; the classic navy/white stripes were supposedly used to help locate sailors that fell overboard. Since that time, the garment has become a symbol of casual elegance all over the world.

There are many modern iterations of the classic Breton, several of which come from Saint James. The Binic II is the classic button-shouldered sweater, and the Meridien II is the traditional boatneck long-sleeve shirt. I have been looking to add something similar to the Meridien II to my summer wardrobe for years now, but a few things have been stopping me from purchasing the original. For starters, it’s a bit expensive (it’s just a shirt, after all), and the fit information is also ambiguous due to the unisex sizing. For these reasons, I decided to expand my search.

My first attempt was off a tip from Put This On, who suggested looking into deadstock Soviet Telnyashkas. This military uniform is based off the French naval one, so the designs are essentially the same. I decided to give it a shot and picked one up on ebay for about $25. Unfortunately, the strange fit made the garment virtually unwearable, and the white stripes had a pink tinge to them, indicating a wash with something red in a past life. Strike one.

Now slightly jaded, I decided to go with something more familiar and searched the sale circuit for brands I was more comfortable with. I ended up finding a Breton from Gant on a discount site and picked it up. This time, though, the aggressive boatneck, ¾ sleeves, and super-tight fit made the garment too effeminate to wear comfortably. Moreover, the shirt was made from a thin t-shirt cotton, rather than the heavy carded cotton used in the original. Good for some, perhaps, but not for me. Strike two.

At this point I was faced with a classic dilemma – give up my search and take my previous purchases as a loss, or persevere, carrying the guilt of previous unsuccessful purchases with me. I decided to end my search prematurely, and had to suffer through the summers of 2012 and 2013 without a Breton (I survived, somehow).

I could drag this story on further, but I’ll wrap it up and say that the perfect Breton was hiding in plain sight the whole time, at the Uniqlo on Powell Street (and online). It was exactly what I wanted – a comfortably slim long-sleeve shirt with bold navy/white stripes and heavy cotton fabric. The Uniqlo model features a standard crewneck instead of the traditional boatneck, but this makes the garment a bit less bold and easier to “pull off” for the average man. The fit is true-to-size; I took my normal size (small) and it is a slim and comfortable fit.

The best part? This Breton comes in at under $20 – the cheapest of the three I tried. Although I’m sure the quality isn’t quite on par with the traditional model, it’s plenty good for a simple cotton shirt. I plan on wearing mine like you see above – with beat-up chinos and loafers. If I’m feeling adventurous, I might even slip it on under a lightweight navy blazer. I might also sport it on my next sailing trip, just in case I tumble overboard after a few too many PBRs.

EDIT: some readers mentioned a couple more great places to purchase inexpensive Bretons – MUJI and Armorlux. Both brands have a solid reputation and make great replicas of the original style. Thanks, guys!