Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Bolland Fellow

Sailor Shirts and Photographs: A Research Diary - Part 6

10. (sailor shirts everywhere)

I return to the sailor shirt itself a few weeks later, when I speak with the curator of photography at the Quai Branly museum. Christine Barthes too has seen some photographs of sailor shirts. Madagascar and Polynesia are the places she recalls. My heart sinks slightly at the idea that I now face searching beyond West Africa. In the museum’s database we find some photographs. In particular a set of stereoscopic views made by geographer, ethnographer and geologist, Guillaume Grandidier, in Madagascar in 1898. I realize now, of course, that native sailors must have been hired everywhere during the French colonial enterprise, even though none of the extremely dull books on naval history (penned by retired old admirals) ever mention anything of the sort, busy as they are in recalling heroic maneuvers and the grandeur of the country they served. This omission of the colonial enterprise in this literature surprises me even more so since the French colonies were, until 1898 under the administration of the Ministère de la Marine. Colonialism was thus under the remit of the navy. 


My research feels like it is only at its beginning, full of holes and endless to do lists and yet, from what I have seen and read so far, what have I learnt about the sailor shirt, and about those two photographs I started my inquiry with, the one with the two young men in striped shirts and sarongs standing and refusing the camera’s gaze and that of Fred Pepple and his European simulacra of a ‘war canoe’ filled with fourteen men wearing little more than a sailor shirt?

First, perhaps, is that the sailor shirt, this ubiquitous pattern seen on all seas and with all French navy expeditions (note to self: check uniforms of sailors of all other European countries in the nineteenth century) is an emblem of colonialism. If I am right that the French liberally dressed their native sailors or laptots workforce in striped jersey, it is, I imagine, to ensure that the presence of the French was duly noted by other foreign colonial powers in all those contexts, from the Southern coast of Madagascar to the Congo delta. The ubiquitous presence of the striped sailor’s shirt was perhaps as effective as the symbolic power shown by Queen Victoria when she traveled abroad with her children dressed in uniforms of the British Empire. The famous portrait of young prince Albert Edward (the future Edward VII) painted by F.X. Winterhalter in 1846, in which he wears a sailor suit is often credited for launching the fashion for sailor outfits as children clothing; but it was also, on the international stage of politics, a soft power emblem of the British colonial empire. In an exhibition catalog entitled Les marins font la mode[1] , which shows the history of the sailor uniform and its transfer from the navy to civilian clothing and fashionable wear, I find a late nineteenth-century advertisement from the children’s clothing line at the Bon Marché, a Parisian department store, that depicts a conquering child dressed in a sailor suit amidst caricatures of tribesmen in a luscious savannah, with the caption: “chez les Sauvages.”  In the same book a poster from the French Navy that states an unambiguous slogan: “Sans la marine pas d’empire” is also reproduced. There is something vertiginous to imagine that at the same time as it was worn by colonial forces around the world, the time of the most aggressive campaigns across Africa, the sailing suit and shirt translated into the benign forms of seaside and children wear. How cynical can fashion be? And then why did the striped sailor shirt become so popular for the cultural avant-garde in the late 1950s at the very time of decolonization? This is something I crave to answer, even though I am aware that speculation will have the upper hand over certainty on this one.

<--     Part 5

[1] Véronique Alemany (editor) Les marins font la mode (exhibition catalogue) Paris, Musée de la Marine and Gallimard, 2009.

More sailor shirts from other collections...

Complements of Christine Barthe from Musée du Quai Branly

For more on Brazza, see Part 5


Sophie Berrebi
Rita Bolland Fellow