Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Bolland Fellow

Sailor Shirts and Photographs: A Research Diary in Six Parts | Part 1

Fashion & design
1 (The Research Center for Material Culture (RCMC) – outlining my research project – first contacts)

It has taken me some time to find my footing. Not only to orientate myself geographically, although that too. In the cool, dark and cavernous building that hosts the RCMC in Leiden, I have learnt to remember the difference between the blue staircase and the green one, understand at what time people gather in the red room, and which of the eight or so identical-looking and unmarked doors open to an office full of now familiar faces, and which ones lead to unknown territory - or onto a cupboard. But soon enough, I was registered with full access, swishing my magnetic pass to enter the building, launching a search into the database and conversing in French with the librarian. 

I wish the process of my research were as smooth. It is an entirely new project that departs from my art historical background to the study of clothing items: head and body wraps, accessories such as neckties, white shirts, pockets and overalls. My aim is not to write comprehensive histories of each of the items (perhaps eight to ten) I plan to research, but to construe them as something close to what art historian Hubert Damisch called  “theoretical objects”: I want to understand their symbolism today, and where they might come from across time and space. In a lecture I once gave about lipstick, I stood before the audience applying some to my lips and asking aloud questions I sometimes ask myself: why wear make-up? What is the imaginary I mentally conjure when I do? Why does it give me a certain confidence, and appear attractive to some and repulsive to others? How does lipstick today relate to body markings that have existed in other periods of time and other places?

These kinds of questions guide my research, opening, like other unmarked doors, to new disciplines, objects and ideas. I have come here to study textiles and garments, to understand better what the current trend for head wraps that I have seen on very cool-looking women on the streets in Paris and London means, where it might come from, and what it says. I have come to seek what is at the core of the idea of wrapping the body with fabric, to research how overalls transform their wearer, why with the advent of spring everyone around me seems to be wearing striped sailor shirts and what, unbeknownst to them, it might mean. 

2 (the memory of a photograph – a second photograph)

But while I have come to study clothing, it is to photography that I first turn, to the slight surprise, I think, of the museum and research teams here. I have this memory of an image I once saw in this very building, I explain to my hosts, on my first day in Leiden. An image brought up on a screen, by an anthropologist from Brazil, Bruna Triana, during an expert meeting on photography. It was a nineteenth-century picture of two young men standing in an unidentified location, wearing a kind of sarong and a striped sailor shirt. That photograph has been in my mind ever since, and it is rapidly, to my relief, found anew by the Africa curator, Annette. 

The image she finds (inventory number RV-A274-86, old number 1226) is the photograph that first opened my eyes to the idea that the history of the striped sailor shirt existed beyond the confines of the French navy, seaside holidays and Brigitte Bardot. Discovering it again, I am struck by the discrepancy between the striking outfits and the apparent uneasiness of the two young men who wear them. They wear the shirts under thin-striped blazers with a contrasting trim. Only one button is fastened so that the jackets open up onto the shirts, making visible some kind of sash and the elaborately draped patterned fabric that flows almost reaching to their ankles. But however lush and decorative their outfits are, it only enhances the contrast with the way in which their gazes resist the camera lens. Their apparent discomfort is all over their body language, as they stand huddled together against the painted backdrop. The straw on which they stand is blurred in patches, as if evidencing their slight shuffling, and it makes me uncomfortable to probe the photograph. The database tells us they are two members of the Kru culture, and that the photograph was taken in Angola around 1870 by a Portuguese photographer named Jose Agosto da Cunha Moraes. So is the second photograph that comes up on Annette’s computer screen.   

Labeled RV-A274-40, it shows a shallow elongated boat divided in its middle by a cabin in front of which stands a man with a white beard and a light coloured-bowler hat, holding an umbrella and wearing a worn-out double–breasted coat. Around him fourteen men (one mostly hidden from view) wearing pristine-looking sailor shirts and small matching hats or wraps. Paddle in hand as if ready to depart, they are sat on the narrow boat resting against a riverbank. The trees on the other side of the river are luscious while in the foreground the vegetation has been presumably hacked down to allow the boat to land. The water is almost eerily still. The museum note card states that the Kru were identified as such by association with the first photograph (“vgl. voor hun costuum no. 1226,” reads a note made by the person who first classified the image), so someone at the museum was there before I was, and made the association, but how far did they go?  I only know that the striped jersey shirt became a fixed element of the French sailor’s uniform by official decree in 1858. This is c.1870, Angola, according to the card, and I have little to work on to make the leap between Angola in the 1870s and the French uniform garment (striped shirts were also used by the Russian navy, but that is another story). Examining the note card feels like looking into a cold case in a crime novel. I go into the literature mentioned on the cards. But there is no mention of the uniform or clothing of the Kru there.[1]

Part 2      -->

[1] The literature mentioned on the cards is H. Marquardsen and A. Stahl, Angola, Berlin, 1928, and  J. Buttikofer, Reisebilder aus Liberia. Leiden, Brill, 1890.

Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Bolland Fellow
Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Boland Fellow
Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Boland Fellow
Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Boland Fellow
Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Bolland Fellow
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