You only need be near the coast of Brittany an hour or two before you are seized by an irresistible urge to purchase a striped shirt.
For Robin and me, it happened on our first morning in Paimpol. We’d arrived the afternoon before. The forecast called for rain. We hadn’t packed our rain gear. That in itself is inexplicable, since we knew to expect rain in Brittany.
In that town – and in every town we’ve been in for the past week – people were wearing Breton striped shirts. Not everyone, but certainly not just the tourists either.
I’ve read several different stories about the origin of the iconic shirts. Some say they were introduced when a law passed in 1858 made them an official part of every sailor’s uniform – the theory being that the stripes were easy to see should a man accidentally go overboard.
Others say that the shirts date back to 1850, when the Saint James company began manufacturing sweaters for the boatmen to wear when working on the sea. They soon added the striped shirts, which became a staple in Brittany.
And then in the 1930s, Coco Chanel introduced the fashion of tanning. People flocked to the seashore to tan – and started buying the striped shirts they found there.
Over the years, Picasso was photographed in a striped shirt, giving it a certain brio. And one of the iconic images for me of Jackie Kennedy is boating in Hyannis in a striped shirt and white pants.
Nobody we saw wore their shirts with anything like the panache of Picasso, Chanel or Kennedy. But still, we were hooked by an idea.
And so Robin and I found ourselves in a marine store that catered to the boat owners in the harbor – and to tourists like us. We dutifully bought our rain gear. And then we swooped up striped shirts as well…made by, of course, the Saint James company.