Monday, March 18, 2013

je ne sais quois

French singer Sylvie Vartan in the 1960s
The Breton shirt, the marinière…whatever name you give them, I love, love striped shirts. And I'm not alone, clearly–there are even blogs specifically dedicated to the garment. It's a fascination that in itself fascinates me, because how does such a simple design–replicated in millions of incarnations–become so iconic? How can we describe what makes it special?

French sailors in uniform
A bit of backstory: the Breton shirt came from the 1858 Act of France, which introduced a new naval uniform that included a knit shirt with navy and white stripes. Apparently, the original shirts had exactly twenty-one stripes as a reference to the number of Napoleon's victories. By the late 19th century, the shirt in both wool and cotton became a workwear staple in Bretagne (Breton), and was produced by the Tricots Saint James company, which continues to manufacture the style today.

Pablo Picasso and James Dean in striped shirts
Coco Chanel is credited for bringing the Breton shirt into the realm of civilian sportswear, after a trip to the French Riviera where she was inspired by seeing them on the fishermen. Striped shirts gained quite a following over the 20th century, popping up in the wardrobes of artists (e.g. Picasso) and style icons (e.g. James Dean, Audrey Hepburn). But the 1960s French New Wave movement in cinema could be considered a golden moment for the style, with Godard ingenues Jean Seberg and Anna Karina radiating effortless cool in their marinières, the antithesis of the overtly sexy pinup looks of the 1950s. Perhaps I like to wear striped shirts in a subconscious attempt to emulate the nonchalant stylishness of these characters, vicariously road-tripping through France in an Alfa-Romeo Spider…living a life captured in jump-cuts.

Jean Seberg in a promotional poster for Breathless (À bout de souffle)
Anna Karina in De l'amour (1964), which was actually an Aurel movie, not a Godard
Much has been made of the French's style and their "je ne sais quois," which is kind of the perfect expression to describe my attraction to this classic aesthetic, since it literally translates to "I don't know what." It's hard to describe the appeal in things so simple that they could be almost be mundane. With complex, extraordinary things, for instance, the clothes of designer Mary Katrantzou, it's easier to express admiration because the qualities of her work are so heightened and striking–those epic photo prints and their placement on the body! Those billowing layers of printed chiffon! Those shots of pure colour! Whereas with a designer like Phoebe Philo of Céline, the subtlety of her work presents a different kind of mastery, that makes it more difficult to pinpoint its appeal. An elegance brushed with a quiet irreverence? 

My point is not about whether certain types of design are simply easier to appreciate, but rather how the appeal of certain things is easier to articulate. Leave it to the French to fill in the gaps in our aesthetic vocabulary. ChicJolie-laideJe ne sais quois.

Looks from Mary Katrantzou's Spring 2011 collection
Daria Werbowy in Céline's Fall 2012 campaign


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