France's Striped Shirt and Beret: Origins of a Stereotype

How the French Navy Inspired France's Most Stereotypical Shirt

French Stereotype - Striped Shirt, Beret, Baguette
Elvira Boix Photography/Getty Images

French people are often portrayed wearing a navy striped shirt, a beret, a baguette under their arm and a cigarette in their mouth. Did you ever wonder how much of this stereotype is true?

As you can well imagine, French people don’t actually walk around like this. The French striped shirt is somewhat popular, but the beret—not so much. French people do love their bread, and many buy a fresh loaf every day, although since la baguette or le pain is often dusted with flour, it is usually tucked into a shopping bag, not under one's arm.

On the other hand, smoking is still very common in France, although it is no longer centered around the disappearing, once supremely iconic Gauloises cigarettes, and it won't happen in a public place, where smoking has been banned since 2006 in line with the rest of Europe.

So if you look hard enough, you may encounter the relatively stereotypical image of a French person wearing a navy striped shirt and holding a baguette. But it is highly doubtful that person would be smoking in a public place and wearing a beret.

The French Striped Shirt

The French striped shirt is called une marinière or un tricot rayé (a striped knit). It’s usually made of jersey and it has long been part of the sailors' uniform in the French Navy.

La marinière became a fashion statement at the beginning of the 20th century. First Coco Chanel adopted it during World War I when cloth was difficult to find. She used this simple knit fabric for her expensive new casual-chic line inspired by the French Navy.

Well-known personalities from Pablo Picasso to Marilyn Monroe adopted the look. Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent both used it in their collections. But it was really Jean-Paul Gaultier who, in the 1980s, promoted this simple piece of clothing onto the world stage. He used it in many creations, even transforming it into evening gowns and using the image of the striped shirt on his perfume bottles.

Today, many French people still wear this kind of sailor's shirt, which has become a must for any casual, preppy wardrobe.

Le Beret

Le béret is a popular flat wool hat that's worn mainly in the Béarnaise countryside. Although traditionally black, the Basque region uses a red version. Most important, it keeps you warm.

Here again, the world of fashion and celebrities played a role in making the beret popular. It became a fashionable accessory in the 1930s after being worn rakishly askew by a number of movie actresses. Nowadays, adults in France no longer wear berets much, but children do, in bright colors like pink for little girls. 

So that's the story of one of the many outmoded clichésabout French habits. After all, how could people living in a country with one of the highest concentrations of haute couture houses dress the same way for decades? What you'll see on any street in France is people with a great sense of classic, individualized style.