Monday, October 31, 2011

La Marinière [The French sailor shirt]

This week, we resume our series on French icons with la Marinière, known the world over as "the French sailor shirt," or "the Breton shirt," (named after Brittany, the rugged coastal region in Western France.)

Every spring and summer, the striped navy and white shirt returns on runways and in the street. French women refer to it as "un basique" - a basic but essential piece in their wardrobe. A timeless classic, versatile and adaptable, la Marinière looks good on almost everyone. 

Gratuitous dog shot-- because I love dogs!
Another dog shot -- because I can!

Some claim la Marinière - and by extension, everything striped and nautical - have been overdone in recent years. Are we headed for a Breton stripe overdose?

No matter. I own at least six or seven Marinières in different colors and styles. Most have come from France, but it would have been easy finding them here. American prêt-à-porter collections typically include at least one or two models of French sailor shirts in the spring and summer.

When la marinière is mentioned, people usually credit Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel for being the first designer to showcase the Breton shirt, and they are correct. In 1913, the budding designer opened a boutique in Deauville, the fashionable seaside resort town in Normandy. While exploring the region's expansive beaches and quaint fishing towns, she became enamored with the simple elegance and comfort of the jersey striped shirts worn by local sailors and fishermen.  The Breton shirt fit the bill of what would become Chanel's trademark:  a very unique blend of feminine, yet comfortable clothes often inspired by men's wardrobes. One can imagine what this new-found freedom meant to women at the turn of the 20th century: Most were still constrained in stiff corsets, intricate dresses and ornate hats, a legacy of "la Belle Epoque" fashion trends.

"Belle Epoque" beauties about to be rescued by Chanel!

Coco Chanel in the 1930s
Audrey Tautou is Coco Chanel in Coco Before Chanel, 2009

Chanel made the Breton shirt famous among the French upper classes, but the striped nautical style had been around for a while in the trendy European coastal resort towns. At the turn of the century, stripes were everywhere: on towels, on beach tents, and even on the long, conservative-looking bathing suits.

Famous beach tents in Dinard (Brittany)

Royan beach (Jacques Henri Lartigue, 1924)
French Atlantic Coast, 1912

Going back even further, it can be argued that the first Marinières belonged to sailors, and old paintings show seamen wearing them as early as the 17th century. I did some research and found out that until 1858, only officers of the French Navy had to wear a specific uniform. Everyday clothes were the ordinary seaman's attire on board. That year, a decree defined the sailor's official uniform in minute detail (color, number and length of stripes, etc.) 

Young French sailor in full uniform

There was no stopping the French sailor shirt, on its way to worldwide domination - or at the very least, to French icon status - once Coco Chanel declared it "à la mode" (trendy.)

In the 1950s, artists and intellectuals adopted la Marinière. Voilà Pablo Picasso, immortalized in his Breton shirt by Robert Doisneau (1952.)

Then came renowned French mime Marcel Marceau, instantly recognizable thanks to his make up and shirt.

French actress and sex symbol Brigitte Bardot invented an iconic look: la Marinière with flat ballet shoes and cropped jeans. 

Other actresses followed suit...

Jean Seberg in Godard's Breathless (1959)
Audrey Hepburn

Kim Novak

Nathalie Wood
A legendary First Lady, famous for her elegance and sense of style, adopted an updated version of la Marinière in the 1960s.

Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine

Following in Chanel's footsteps, famed designers re-invented the Breton shirt. In the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent launched elegant collections inspired by the nautical style.

Catherine Deneuve, Cannes Film Festival, 1966

One generation later, Jean-Paul Gaultier adopted the nautical stripe as his trademark. It seems Monsieur Gaultier has never met a personality or object he has not made over in his signature style. Take a look...

Dabbling in interior design...
Dressing European royalty...
Fighting HIV with French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Venturing into car design... Smart Fortwo (Montreal, 2011)

It seems la Marinière (and the nautical style it inspired) are here to stay. Fans of the striped shirt do not have any problem getting their fix. At one point or another, most prêt-à-porter brands will add it to their collections. In France, several prominent companies offer quality products. My favorite brand is St James, but Armorlux and Petit Bateau are worthy competitors.

If you are getting tired of seeing the French sailor shirt, brace yourself. Nike has just landed a very lucrative deal, and became the main supplier of the French soccer team with a brand-new jersey... Take a look. Coco Chanel would be proud!

As for me, I will hang on to all of these...

... hoping to look more like this...
Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) in Paris
Sex and the City

... and hopefully staying away from that...

What about you? Vous aimez la Marinière? Do you like the French sailor shirt?

A bientôt.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

A trip to [insert city name] is always a good idea...

La Côte Crêperie, Seattle
Customer drawing

This week, I am taking a break from my blogging series about French icons. Instead, I am going to tell you about a most excellent adventure I embarked on recently. 

I took advantage of a beautiful fall day, you see, and drove over to Seattle. 

The City is not exactement what I would call "next door." I live in suburbia, on Seattle's Eastside, across Lake Washington. Not by the lake either. Inland. I wrote stories about our small town here and here

Last week, though, I made a bold move. I had no class to teach. Junior was in school. I was supposed to go to a favorite café and write a story about French icons. I was supposed to go on my daily hour-long walk with the yellow dog. Opportunity was knocking. Off I went, with my trusted Lumix camera. 

My trip was inspired by a short article I found in Seattle Magazine last month. The article highlighted a Seattle neighborhood, Madison Valley, as "Seattle's own Petit Paris." 

A great map for my big Adventure!
Seattle Magazine, September 2011

I knew some of the restaurants already, but there were a couple of new places to discover, and I was thrilled to hear that "Seattle's own Petit Paris" was located near a favorite neighborhood of mine, Madison Park, just a mile down the road.

Madison Valley once thrived as one of the largest local African-American communities, but in the 1980s, the area had become underpopulated and unsafe. An urban renewal effort put it back on the map, and it gradually re-invented itself as a thriving shopping district. 

Its neighbor Madison Park was developed by Judge John J. Mc Gilvra who came to Seattle as U.S. Attorney for Washington territory in the mid-19th century. Mc Gilvra invested in real estate early on. He owned over 400 acres along Lake Washington. As years went by, he would build a road (Madison Street) linking his land with what is now downtown Seattle. A stagecoach ran along Madison street and brought "city folk" to the shores of Lake Washington. By 1889, cable cars were introduced while cross-lake ferry service enabled Seattleites to reach other communities around Lake Washington, in particular Kirkland, on the Eastside. 

Cable Car in front of the Madison Street Pavilion,
complete with an auditorium and a covered observation deck

Madison Park became a popular resort town, especially after Mc Gilvra leased other parts of his property where "weekend cottages" were built. Boathouses, piers, three bathing pavilions, and a promenade were added later on. Life was a beach in Madison Park, at the turn of the century!

Weekend canoeists and bathing pavilion (city archives)

"White City Park" was built for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo in 1907
(city archives)

Madison Park enjoyed a successful career as a major Lake Washington port until 1950, when the last ferry pulled out from the dock (the first Lake Washington floating bridge had been completed in 1940, a more efficient transportation system.) 

The community continued growing and turned into a thriving commercial and residential neighborhood. Over the years, our family has enjoyed many outings there: Boasting close proximity to downtown Seattle; one of the areas' best parks (the Arboretum;) an exciting mix of shops and restaurants; a beach; elegant houses with coveted Lake Washington views; safe residential streets with wide sidewalks, Madison Park has it all! Take a look:

The modest beach bungalows of yesteryear survive...

But many have been updated and resale values are astronomical.

Hardly an ugly duckling along the majestic old streets...

The popular Madison Park beach was almost entirely deserted when I stopped by on a sunny but crisp fall day...

This lucky lady knows what it feels like to sit every morning
 on the "right" side of  the lake!

Yet downtown was lively and colorful, as I passed the lunch time crowd on their way to  favorite restaurants, while attractive storefronts enticed passers-by with their vivid Halloween displays.

Back to the object of my visit. I can never resist a quick visit to Madison Park, but the Madison Valley area, "Seattle's own petit Paris," was the reason I had driven all the way from the Eastside. 

To get there, I only had to follow East Madison Street (built long ago by Judge Mc Gilvra,) and head South towards downtown Seattle where the French-themed businesses listed in the article were waiting.

Once there, I realized there were four French restaurants located on the same block, two on each side of the street. In fact, why don't I make a motion to re-name the area  "The French Carré?"

On the sidewalks where I stepped on freshly strewn leaves, I walked past two celebrated French bistros... Voilà and Luc. I have visited Voilà often in the past. A reliable performer, it serves traditional bistro fare. Two drawbacks: reservations are a must, and the room can get noisy. I mentioned Luc in my first post last December. It is the new bistro owned by a local celebrity: chef Thierry Rautureau. "The Chef in the Hat" also runs one of Seattle's most renowned restaurants, Rover's, a few doors down from Luc

The fourth Musketeer is La Côte Crêperie. I was in the mood for crêpes last week, and I chose La Côte as my lunch place. It is a wonderful little restaurant. The atmosphere is decidedly nautical. I found La Côte to be quite authentic. They serve both savory galettes (made with buckwheat flour) and sweet crêpes, with a generous selection of fillings. There are also salads and some entrées. Wine, beer and French hard cider - forget that Martinelli stuff! - are available by the glass, or by the bottle. French music was playing in the background. A nice touch. 

Les Plats du Jour (Specials)

The Special: Belgian salad with endives, blue cheese and walnuts

Galette "complète": Buckwheat crêpe filled with ham and cheese,
topped by a fried egg. Served with a bowl of Normandy cider

There was time left to visit a few more "French" places...

Inès Pâtisserie is a newcomer in the Madison Valley shopping district. I had stopped by last spring, but the door was closed that morning. Online reviews were promising and I was impatient to sample some of their pastries. You can take the French Girl out of France, but you can't take France out of the French Girl!

Inès Pâtisserie was my favorite part of the whole adventure. Just like in France, I was drawn towards the shop by the unmistakable smell of baked butter, permeating the tiny side street. It became irresistible as I pushed the door. The place was empty except for one customer, sitting at one of the few tables, and a busy lady working behind the counter in the commercial-size kitchen. This is when I met Nora, the owner (and pastry artist) chez Inès Pâtisserie. Later, I learned that the shop is named after Inès, Nora's 9 year old daughter. Nora and I had a fun conversation, en français, bien sûr. She never stopped working -alone- as trays of delicious pastries came out of the oven and had to be laid-out in the display windows. Nohra is lively, passionate and outspoken: Nohra is très French. I was fascinated to watch her work. I was interested in the stories she told. I was definitely won over when she placed a warm croissant on a small plate and presented it to me while I was still standing by the counter. Delicious. Crispy on the outside, chewy and fragrant on the inside. Pure [French] butter. As good as the croissants I used to buy at my favorite bakeries in Paris. Merci, Nohra. I will be back. (Inès Pâtisserie is open Tuesday-Sunday but hours vary. Be persistent! The pastries are worth it!)

 Inès Pâtisserie's open floor plan allows customers to watch the owner work
Apricot tarts fresh out of the oven

Scrumptious pains au chocolat

Macarons filled with lemon-flavored crème pâtissière

My "sample" croissant: perfection!

A couple of blocks away from Inès Pâtisserie is a fantastic store, and a true Seattle landmark: City People's Mercantile. This was the first women-owned hardware/mercantile store in Seattle. It was founded in 1979. Even though the store has had several locations, two remain, and one was right there, in Madison Valley. Over the years, I have always made a point of visiting when I am in the area. It's not so much the garden or the hardware section I am interested in; it is the gift shop I love. I knew City People's Mercantile was not part of the original article about "Seattle's own Petit Paris." I made a bet with myself that a significant part of the inventory would be French-themed. I was right.

A new beret for this French Girl!

I was tired when I got home, but felt very happy and excited about the whole adventure. I brought back souvenirs of my fun time en ville: A selection of my new friend Nora's pastries for Les Boys, a new béret, a black cat for my Halloween display (courtesy of City People's Mercantile,) and over 80 photos I had to sort through that evening.

Gratuitous shot of City People's Halloween display
Check out la Barbie witch!

My new black cat...

Once again, I was reminded that I may live à la campagne (in the country,) but a trip to the city - and Seattle will do - is always a good idea for this French Girl!

A bientôt!

La Côte Crêperie, Seattle
Customer drawing