Milan, 14 May 2023
It is the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso‘s death this year and the art world is overflowing with Picasso exhibitions. My wife and I recently visited one at the Albertina in Vienna (just before the minor operation which has kept me “indisposed” for a while). Meanwhile, one of my sisters announced the other day in our WhatsApp group that she and her husband had just visited the newly refurbished Musée Picasso in Paris, to which another of my sisters replied that she and her husband had just visited the Picasso museum in Malaga, Picasso’s birthplace. No doubt there will be more announcements along these lines throughout the year. However, in this post I do not propose to follow the tide and celebrate Picasso’s artistry. Rather, I want to celebrate his dress sense, and in particular his fondness for wearing, in his later years, a long-sleeved cotton shirt with blue and white horizontal stripes, what the French call la marinière.
If I give it its French name, it’s because it was the French who turned this originally humble shirt into something that cultural movers and shakers like Picasso wore and eventually into an item of high fashion.
I will skip the history of stripes in clothes – or rather the lack of them – in Europe’s earlier history, fascinating though that is, and will cut straight to the chase, in this case an Ordinance emitted in 1858 by the French Ministry of the Navy. This Ordinance decreed that from now on not just Navy officers but also the more humble petty officers and ordinary seamen would wear a uniform, and described in good bureaucratese what this uniform should look like. Here we have a French sailor from a few decades after the Ordinance’s publication.
As the reader can see, the marinière is the shirt beneath the jacket.
It hasn’t changed much since then. Here, we have a couple of modern sailors in the French navy.
The 1858 Ordinance of course also dictated the precise design of this uniform. As far as the marinière was concerned, it was to be made of a fabric knitted in the “jersey” style, and have, front and back, 21 white stripes, each 20 mm wide, interspersed with 21 indigo-blue stripes half as wide, while 14 white and blue stripes of the same widths should run on the sleeves. Why this number of stripes? Lord knows. In the case of the 21 stripes, it has been suggested that they stand for the 21 battles which Napoleon won, although I don’t see how that can be since by my count he won more like 30 battles (and anyway, this is the Navy; why should they memorialise land battles?). In the old days, the blue of the stripes (and probably the blue of the jacket and trousers) came from using my old friend indigo as the dye, but I suppose modern dyes are used today.
It seems that pretty much every Navy has adopted this type of uniform for its seamen. As a result, for the last one hundred and seventy years or so it has become typical in towns near Navy bases to see off-duty seamen in their dashing uniforms lounging about ogling the girls and being ogled back.
But now to the marinière’s upgrade into a fashion item. It seems that Coco Chanel was the first fashionista to take this humble piece of clothing and turn it into a fashion statement. The story goes that during the First World War Chanel would often leave Paris to go and spend time on the Normandy coast; she had a second shop in Deauville, a seaside resort which was the hang-out of the rich and famous. This is a poster for Deauville from the 1920s, when it was once again the place for the rich to go and have fun.
It being wartime when Chanel was going, Deauville must have looked much more sober than in this poster, and I suppose that since the locals were sea folk many of the men would have been called up to the Navy and would have been seen walking around the town in their uniform. Chanel was much struck by the marinière and added her version of it to her collections for women from 1916 onwards. This was quite audacious of her, since she was taking an article of clothing for men, and working men at that, and using it as a fashion item for respectable bourgeois ladies. Initially, she also made her marinières out of jersey fabric; this scandalised people because at the time this was a fabric strictly associated with underwear. She argued that the war made it difficult to source more upscale fabrics – and perhaps it was unpatriotic to use such fabrics at a time when many people were suffering great privation. After the war, she quietly moved to using posher fabrics, especially silk. Here, we have her wearing one of her marinières, along with a pair of trousers, no doubt another cause of scandal (when I was young it was still thought that proper young women did not wear trousers, and certainly not in the workplace).
Of course, Picasso and Chanel knew each other; the artsy world is a small one, everywhere. Jean Cocteau was a firm friend of Picasso’s; he was one of the witnesses to Picasso’s marriage with his first wife, Olga Khokhlova. He was also a firm friend of Chanel’s, so naturally he introduced the two to each other … It so happened that Olga was a devoted client of Chanel’s, and Chanel regularly visited the couple after they were married … Some of Chanel’s creations were inspired by Picasso’s cubism … Chanel and Picasso collaborated with Cocteau in his 1922 adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone: Chanel designed the costumes, Picasso designed the sets and masks; here we have the costume for Antigone …
Readers get the picture. I don’t think, though, Picasso ever painted Chanel; at least, I haven’t found any trace of such a painting.
But Picasso did paint another woman who was also instrumental, along with her husband, in promoting the marinière among the more arty folk.
She was Sara Murphy, he Gerald Murphy, both from wealthy American families, who in the 1920s decided to escape from their disapproving parents and live on the French Riviera for a while. They hosted a fashionable bohemian set at their home there: Picasso, of course, was a guest, but so was the painter Fernand Léger, despite his communist sympathies; as readers can guess, Cocteau also turned up (he happened to own a villa in the same general area); Cole Porter – an intimate friend of Gerald’s – was a frequent visitor; a bevvy of American poets and writers travelling through Europe dropped by: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, John O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley; and on and on. Chanel could well have also been a guest – she, too, owned a villa on the French Riviera – but I’ve found no trace of her being on the guest list.
The story goes that on a shopping trip to Marseilles – a port city, let’s remember – Gerald was charmed by the marinières that he saw all around him. So he bought a bunch of them and distributed them to his guests, thereby transforming the humble marinière into chic leisurewear. We have here a photo of Gerald wearing a marinière, with his wife on the beach.
And here we have F. Scott Fitzgerald, with his wife Zelda, wearing his marinière together with plus-fours – an interesting combination, shall we say.
I should say in passing that the Murphys are credited with getting the smart set to visit the French Riviera during the summer and not just the winter, as had been the case until then. Prior to their arrival, lying on a beach to enjoy the sun was not done. Occasionally, someone went swimming, but the joys of hanging out on a beach just to soak up the sun were still unknown. It was the Murphys who introduced this as a fashionable activity. We have here Gerald and Picasso on the beach at Antibes.
And here, to complement the photo above of the poster advertising the charms of Deauville, we have a photo of a UK poster from the late 1920s advertising the – warm – charms of the French Riviera.
Even though Gerald may have given Picasso a marinière to wear back in the 1920s, we don’t have a photo of him wearing one then – or at least I haven’t found such a photo. The photos with him in a marinière, like the one I started this post with, are from the 1950s and later. Perhaps it was only when Picasso moved down to the Riviera after World War II that he started wearing one regularly.
In fact, the marinière only seems to have become a common fashion statement in France in the 1950s, and from what I can gather we mainly have Brigitte Bardot to thank for this. She turned up at a Cannes Film Festival – and was photographed – in a marinière. Here, we have a few of these photos.
Here’s another, with BB showing her sex kitten side.
High fashion once more picked up on the marinière. Here, we have Yves Saint Laurent’s 1966 take on this item of clothing.
But it was Jean-Paul Gaultier who really put the marinière on the high fashion map from the late 1970s onwards. He went crazy for it after seeing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film “Querelle de Brest”, a film which plays to another side, the homoerotic side, of the Navy uniform.
Here is a selection of Gaultier’s take on the marinière.
There are lots more of Gaultier’s takes on this once humble piece of clothing. Any reader who is interested in dreaming about what flash piece of Gaultier marinière-themed wear they could look for in their local vintage clothes shop can do no worse than surf this site. And there are lots of other high fashion dudes who’ve had a go at the marinière: Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel (unsurprisingly), Kenzo Takada, Sonia Rykiel, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, and on and on. I shall let readers explore.
Meanwhile, although I said at the beginning that I didn’t want to celebrate Picasso’s artistry in this post, it seems to me appropriate to finish up with a couple of his works in which he celebrated the marinière.
Here, we have a man in a marinière smoking a cigarette.
This is a self-portrait from 1943.
And here we have Picasso’s daughter Claude in a marinière-themed dress.