26 July 2021

A Sign Of Summer: The Breton Stripe

"The body of the shirt will count twenty-one white stripes, each twice as wide as the twenty to twenty-one indigo blue stripes." -  Admiral Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, Minister of the Marine for Brittany1858

How French, you may say, to be so precise about specifications. The French are proud of their navy and  its many victories over the British. The rivalry is apparent in their dueling names for the body of water that separates the two countries: Pas de Calais or English Cannel.

So the design of a new uniform was also a matter of symbolic import. The colors blue and white were chosen for their nautical associations; the three-quarter length sleeves were practical for physical tasks and sailors soon realized that it was easier to spot a man overboard in  a striped shirt. Although the French like to boast that the stripes represent Napoleon's naval victories, the truth is more prosaic; technical innovations in the production of cloth made it possible to knit a continuous, precisely striped shirt on one piece. Once the mariniere or rayure bretonne became the official sailor's uniform it was quickly adopted by fishermen and onion sellers along France's northern coast.

Stripes have a long history among the marginalized, from wandering minstrels and jesters to lepers and madmen. They were worn by men who existed on the fringes of society. 

At the time stripes were considered suitable male attire. Guy de Maupassant always wore a striped jersey when he was aboard his boat or when was was onshore mixing with the tough guys who hun around the docks.

However the young woman pictured in La voyageuse au bateau painted by Marcel Gromaire in 1930 owes her 'garconne' look to Coco Chanel. The young Chanel had had some success as a hat maker in Deauville where she  opened a shop in 1913.  Being a woman, Chanel recognized that women were looking for a simpler style that would be chic but afford them greater freedom of movement. She introduced her striped jerseys in her couture collection in 1917.

Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971) was a painter of the modern pursuit of leisure,  golf, tennis, swimming, and sunbathing.

For further reading: The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes &  Striped Clothing by Michel Pastoureau, translated from the French by Jody Gladding, New York, Columbia University Press: 2001.\

Image: Marcel Gromaire - La voyageuse au bateau, 1930, oil on canvas, Musee d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris.

2 comments:

Tania said...

Nice post ! It reminds me of Pastoureau’s book on stripes and their ambivalence. I remember my first Breton sweater that I liked to wear. Yes, it’s the sea, the summer, the holidays...

Jane said...

Tania, es, the Pastoureau book is full of thought-provoking things.
I have a genuine Breton tee shirt (in indigo and white) from Saint James. Also a red beret!