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What is the Breton Cap?

Here's everything you need to know about the Breton cap including its pros and cons, history, and materials used. We've included some tips on how to wear them along with the shops where you can buy this iconic hat.

Black leather Breton cap with shades on the side.

  • A Breton cap has a soft, flat crown and a small visor or peak and is also known as a mariner’s or fisherman’s cap.
  • Traditionally worn by Breton fishermen, it made of usually made of navy wool felt.
  • Originally used as workwear, it was popularized in modern culture by actors like Marlon Brando and pop stars The Beatles.

The name might be unfamiliar, but if I were to say ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ or ‘Greek fisherman’, you probably have a good idea of what a Breton cap is. This iconic cap may have come from humble roots, but it has left its traces across the history of modern fashion. It has become something of a rebel statement despite its roots in traditional workwear.

What is the Breton Cap

Old man in jacket and Breton cap fishing on the river.

The Breton cap was originally the working cap of the Breton fishermen. The distinctive soft flat cap and small peak became symbolic of fishers, merchant navy men, and other maritime occupations. It is sometimes known as the Greek fisherman’s cap as it is an iconic look of the fisherman in Greece and Cyprus.

The cap was usually made from felted wool in navy or black – a design choice inspired by their use in rough, dirty conditions. They were made to withstand the conditions of stormy seas and harsh weather. Breton caps were a practical choice for maritime work, as evidenced by their connection to our image of merchant navy uniforms.

Is it in Style Today?

Woman wearing a leather jacket and a stylish Breton cap.

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The popularity of the Breton cap exploded in modern culture when celebrities like Marlon Brando and John Lennon wore them in the 50s and 60s.

Marlon Brando’s appearance as Johnny Strabler in The Wild Ones, wearing a black leather version, led to others mimicking their use as counterculture symbols. The Beatles and other 60’s idols like Bob Dylan made the caps even more popular, and subsequent fashion trends mean the Breton cap periodically comes back in style on the catwalk.

In 2015 it experienced another revival as part of the ‘return of the rebel’ look when Gigi Hadid graced the cover of Vogue wearing a biker jacket and Breton cap in homage to Marlon Brando’s classic look.

The iconic look of the Greek fisherman cap and the multitude of modern fabric options means it is still a popular choice for many subcultures.

Both men and women wear Breton caps due to the ease of unisex styling.

Materials/Fabrics Used

Woman with leather Breton cap posing in the street.

Breton caps were traditionally made from navy wool, though they also came in black. Other materials used were corduroy and denim.

Today, wool Breton caps are often blends of wool and other materials such as polyester or acrylic. The higher the wool percentage, the more the cap will cost.

Leather versions of the Breton cap were popularized by Marlon Brando in the ’50s when his rebel character wore one in The Wild One. Leather caps will usually be leather on the outer surface and lined with cotton for comfort and breathability.

A knitted wool version with a leather visor, usually in grey or black, was made by some Rastafarians who had moved from Jamaica to the USA. These had a much larger crown than the traditional Breton cap, as they were designed to cover up dreadlocks.

How to Wear it

Woman in black suit and Breton cap posing in the winter park.

Traditional style wool Breton caps are obvious choices for yachting vacations or heading out for a trip on a boat. They are functional and still used by fishermen to this day. Breton caps work especially well for winter outfits, teamed with scarves and jackets.

But for a more modern approach to wearing a Breton cap, use different fabrics to evoke certain eras and styles.

The Breton cap pairs well with reefer coats and pea coats, hearkening back to 70’s nostalgia and casual style. Corderoy versions have a softer feel, evoking folk music and patched jackets. Grey wool Breton caps are great with denim jackets.

Woman wearing glasses, Breton cap, and leather jacket at a railway station.

Wear a wool Breton cap with a leather jacket for a retro-inspired rebel feel.

Woman wearing breton cap and black sleeveless top.

Today Breton caps can be dressed up or down, and teaming a vintage leather-style cap with a strapless black dress and gold earrings is one way to play with classic workers’ headgear and modern styles

Pros and Cons of Breton Caps

Pros of Breton Caps

  • The Breton cap is functional with a classic feel and a good choice in winter gear.
  • Traditional fabrics like wool and leather are excellent for outdoor use, as they were designed for the spray and salt of choppy seas and rainy days on the coast.
  • A natural wool cap will keep your head warm on chilly days.
  • It is an adaptable addition to a wardrobe and can be dressed down or up.

Cons of Breton Caps

  • Due to their look being synonymous with some political affiliations, especially if they have military-style braiding or badges, you could inadvertently offend.
  • Fetish and kink also popularized the use of leather Breton-style caps in the BDSM scene – a homoerotic image that many fashion icons have played within their catwalk style. This could be a con for some.

History of the Breton cap

Portrait of an old man wearing a Breton cap.

Brief history overview

Breton caps in the early 19th century were usually made from black or navy wool and were relatively cheap to manufacture. This economy led to the Breton cap becoming synonymous with factory workers and sailors across Europe. The roots in working-class culture led to its rise as a modern symbol of counterculture revolutionaries.

In Jewish communities in Poland and Russia, the Breton hat became a black felt cap with a braided band, often worn instead of a kippah.

It spread from France across Europe, where it became especially popular in Greece and in Russia. The style of the Breton cap was associated with Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky, which has led to the Breton cap also being called the Lenin cap or Mao cap.

The style regained popularity in the fifties and sixties and was the mark of the swinging, fashionable set in London. Later style revivals have kept the Breton cap coming back in fashion.

When was it invented?

The Breton cap was first mass-produced as workwear in the early 1800s. Through the 19th century, it became more popular across Europe and into eastern Europe, even appearing as iconic headwear during the Russian revolution.

In the West, it also grew in popularity, especially among the fisherman of Greece, where it became a staple of the traditional costume.

Where does it come from?

As the name suggests, the Breton cap most likely originated from the northwest of France and was worn by the Breton fishermen. It spread across Europe and became a very popular choice for working headgear, and waterproof versions were created for use by mechanics and truckers.

Modern incarnations of the cap may nod at its rebel past, but while its roots are humble, it rose to a prominent place in public culture.

How much does it cost?

How much you will spend on a Breton cap will depend on the material you choose, the style, and the name of the fashion company you’re buying from.

A 70% wool version in the classic look of the traditional fisherman’s cap in navy or black will cost around $25, but versions with a higher acrylic content can be as low as $17.

Corderoy caps are even cheaper and retail at $12-$15

Leather Breton caps may be more expensive and will depend on the type of leather used. A genuine leather vintage Breton cap can cost around $105

Where to buy it?

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Breton hats are easy to buy online due to their popularity in modern fashion. As a stylish and classic cap that has stood the test of time, they are available at most large online retailers and smaller boutique shops.

If you’re looking for a simple classic Breton cap, you can find many variations available on Amazon and Etsy.

Specialist shops such as Nauticalia and Sterkowski will offer more choices if you’re looking for something a little more specific.