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Did you know? Striped shirts and the French navy

The blue and white striped top is the emblematic French article of clothing along with black berets.

It has been worn by the national football team, has a long history in the fashion world and is undeniably part of the French look.

Coco Chanel wore one in a famous photo in 1913, seen as daring because up to then such an article of clothing had only been worn by men, and Jean Paul Gaultier included the style in his Toy Boy collection in 1983, where it also appears on his torso shaped Male perfume bottles.

In 2012, Economic Recovery Minister at the time, Arnaud Montebourg was on the front cover of the Le Parisien magazine wearing one made by Brittany based Armor Lux to defend Made in France products. It led to a 60% increase in sales, virtually overnight.

Its origins are in the French navy, where it became part of the obligatory uniform for sailors in 1858. Before that, they were able to go to sea in their own clothes – only officers had to wear a uniform.

The new regulations stated the top had to have 21 white 20mm wide stripes, and 20 or 21 indigo blue 10mm stripes on the back and front. There had to be 15 white stripes and 14 or 15 blue stripes on the sleeves.

The sleeves had to be three-quarters in length so as not to show below the jacket and it had to be long enough to be tucked into the trousers, and as the website for the Ministry of Defence states in its history of this part of the navy uniform, it had to be “long enough (up to the thigh) to cover and protect the intimate parts of the sailor, who at that time, did not wear any under clothes.”

There were no buttons and no seams, other than on the sleeves so that the sailor could move easily without risk of being caught up in ropes. It became known as a marinière from the word marin for sailor.

There are three theories to explain the choice of stripes. They are outlined in a book written by a French historian, Michel Pastoureau, called The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric. Firstly, he writes that in the Middle Ages stripes were traditionally associated with the devil and for centuries they were worn by people in the lower levels of society; slaves, maids, and convicts, and so would have been thought as appropriate for sailors who were the lowest grade in the Navy.

He also concedes they might have been chosen so sailors would be more easily visible if they fell in the sea and the third reason might have been because the looms used to create the material were set up to produce striped material.

In his analysis of the use of stripes, he goes on to explain that later on stripes became associated with freedom, youth, pleasure and humour and that the two systems of values continue to co-exist. Wearing a marinière has thus, over the years, become associated with street fashion, fun and French chic.

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