When filming began on 1955’s To Catch a Thief, Cary Grant arrived on set wearing beige trousers, loafers, and a blue chambray button-down, the costume he’d chosen for his retired cat thief John Robie. The look perfectly combined the character’s Continental elegance and casual cool. There was one problem, however. According to Sylvette Baudrot, a native French woman hired by Hitchcock to ensure the film’s continuity, the chambray shirt was too modern for the late 1940’s, the period in which the story was set. So Grant scoured local boutiques in Cannes to find a suitable replacement. What he came up with became the foundation for one of the most iconic costumes ever worn on film: the navy and white Breton striped shirt.
The style has a long history in France, dating back to 1858 when the navy and white horizontal stripe was introduced as the uniform for seamen in Brittany. Its popularity spread rapidly among other seafarers, and eventually to the Lost Generation bohemians who congregated on the French Riviera after the First World War. From there the style — whether sweater or shirt form, white-on-navy or vice versa — was favored by icons as diverse as Picasso, James Dean, JFK, Andy Warhol and Kurt Cobain, not to mention Jean Seberg in Breathless, and the aforementioned Mr. Grant.
As for making the look a part of your own summer wardrobe, it’s simple: Get one. Put it on. You’ll be surprised with how versatile it is. Dress it up with a navy blazer or khaki suit, grunge it out with a black leather jacket, or, once the mercury tops out, wear it on its own with jeans, shorts, or chinos. And if someone mistakes you for a retired cat burglar recently in town from the French Riviera, you’ll know that you’re doing something right.