The Ground Zero of Design 4th Episode: Basque shirt
I am Yonezu Yusuke from the company “THE.” The company “THE” is a manufacturer that develops products in all fields from lacquerwares to electric bicycles. If you say “the” jeans, people know that indicates Levi’s 501. Likewise, there are standard products accompanying “the” for any product. What we do is explore and develop such standard-setting products. These products are not average products. Rather, they should be the standard that people imagine as a reference when selecting one product among others. So, these products are at ground zero of their class from which others try to follow or improve. What we do is examine this standard.
For the 4th episode of The Ground Zero of Design, I would like to talk about the Basque shirt. When you hear “Basque shirt,” many of you may image border patterns. Some might associate France or Pablo Picasso with it.
Picasso wore a Basque shirt every day; it was his trademark. A Basque shirt commonly has a unique neck called a boat neck, rather shorter cuffs, and is made from knitted fabric with a blue and white border pattern.
Not only Picasso but many of the sages throughout history such as novelist Ernest Hemingway and fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier loved the Basque shirt, too.
In this episode I would like to explore its Ground Zero by referring to its morphology and function shaped over history.
First I must address the shirt name. It is common in Japan to call it a Basque shirt but in France people call it a Breton Marine or Mariniere instead. (It is said that Basque became the common name after the translated version of “Islands in the Stream” by Hemingway was published in Japan, in which this shirt was translated as “Basque shirt”). Of course, Basque is the name of the region that bridges France and Spain, more precisely from the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains to Biscay Bay.
A Basque shirt is literally from Basque, and it is said that it originates from sailors in 16th century who wore a shirt made from handmade wool and cotton. Back then the shirt was actually already fully functional as the fabric was strong enough to protect the body from a hard sea breeze and the border pattern helped them to be easily seen if they went overboard. It was also easy to wear since the neck was wide (boat neck) and the cuffs were shorter so as not to be caught by ship equipment.
This origin story is actually quite similar to that of the Guernsey sweater in England. The exciting thing is that despite these two different coastal areas producing similar clothing in more or less the same time period, there seems to be no historical connection between them at all. (I need to further research this later). I feel as sense of wonder when I think about why and how we human beings make, develop, and evolve a product.
Anyway, this cloth for sailors was later adapted to become the official uniform of the French Navy in the 1850s. The industrial revolution also made many of the processes in the textile industry automated. Accordingly, the relevant manufacturers produced Basque shirts as OEM products from the 19thto 20th century.Now you know the brief history of the Basque shirt, beginning as a shirt for sailors and later becoming the uniform of marine forces. In 1923, it suddenly gained attention as a fashion icon. American Artist Gerald Murphy found a shirt with blue and white stripes at a wholesale shop for sailors’ products in South France. While there, he often wore it, gaining attention from makers at high-end resorts. This triggered a fashion frenzy in many of the popular reports in Europe and America from the 1930s to 1940s.
Now you know the brief history of the Basque shirt, beginning as a shirt for sailors and later becoming the uniform of marine forces. In 1923, it suddenly gained attention as a fashion icon. American Artist Gerald Murphy found a shirt with blue and white stripes at a wholesale shop for sailors’ products in South France. While there, he often wore it, gaining attention from makers at high-end resorts. This triggered a fashion frenzy in many of the popular reports in Europe and America from the 1930s to 1940s.
To this day, the Basque shirt is a loved fashion item. Nowadays, Saint James in Normandy North France, Orcival at Lyon, and Le minor in Bretagne are known as the typical manufacturers of Basque shirts.
These manufactures still supply Basque shirts under an OEM brand to the French Navy in France. And even though the Basque shirt is a military item, it’s been a popular fashion icon due to its refreshing motif which gives us the impression of the beautiful ocean.
Other types of Basque shirts still exist that focus on more functional aspects inherited from the original sailors’ uniform.
Fileuse d’Arvor was founded in Quimper, Bretagne in 1927. If you look at the tag pictured above, you can see there used to be a tradition in Bretagne, where the company is located, where fishermen’s wives made knitted sweaters at home for their husbands while they were working at sea. Fileuse d’Arvor inherited this tradition and now produces unique textiles using a “horizontal knitting” method. It is a method that literally knits fabric horizontally but is more complex than it sounds. The method is not suitable for thin and delicate fabric but can be used to make thicker fabric using a great amount of thread. Due to its horizontal characteristic, it has the best horizontal stretchiness. The knitting itself has been automated but is still in compliance with the original handmade method.
Other brands like Le minor use the “tubular knitting” method while Saint James and Russell of Orcival use the “vertical knitting” method. The “tubular knitting” method creates so-called cut-and-sewn fabric known as jersey cloth. This method is known to create a tighter fabric.
All the manufacturers call their shirts “Basque shirts” but each has a unique background and history. Once you know their secrets, you will love your shirt more and will be able to see more details in it.
To me, Fileuse d’Arvor is the Ground Zero of the Basque shirt as it has the original functions and background inherited from the shirt of sailors.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Ground Zero of Design.
Our shop at KITTE in Tokyo station (THE SHOP) handles a wide range of Basque shirts including Fileuse d’Arvor as “THE Basque shirt”. Please come and see them if you have an interest.
I hope you will join us next month for the new episode.About the writer
Product Manager / CEO of THE Co. Ltd.,
After graduating university, he worked for PLUS Corporation where he engaged mainly in product planning and product development as well as marketing. In 2012, he joined THE as Product Manager and was responsible for overall product management and business planning, which involved visiting manufacturers all over Japan, as well as product development, distribution, quality control, etc. He was promoted to CEO in March 2015. He co-authored the book “Misunderstanding of Design,” published by Shodensha in 2016.