Coco Chanel’s intuition by Claudio Spuri

Coco Chanel portrait
Coco Chanel wearing a striped tee

Coco Chanel’s intuition and rediscovering the sea

Talking about the history of an article of clothing that is both so simple and yet so rich and versatile isn’t an easy feat.
It would be better to tell the stories and curiosities that could depict, one by one, the possible developments of the t-shirt, or which could at least serve as a stimulus for further research. The t-shirt’s evolution is represented by many first times, each of which related to a different sector. So, in my opinion, there isn’t a specific date when it all began, and therefore there wasn’t really a 100-year anniversary to celebrate.
One of these first times is related to an interesting encounter between fashion, innovation, and military clothing; it’s a story that pays tribute to a great fashion designer, Coco Chanel, and two great intuitions of hers.
The first great idea was choosing jersey over the conventional fabrics of the time. Chanel started using jersey in Deauville after opening her second boutique in 1913. Until then, jersey was not considered an appropriate material for fashion design: it was only used for underwear and work attire. Jersey was originally used by fishermen from the island of Jersey; it was a heavy fabric, elastic, fresh, and cheap. In 1916, Chanel bought a large stock of this material from the textile manufacturer Jean Rodier who hadn’t been able to sell all of his supply, and therefore sold it to Chanel at a discount rate. In just a few years, the stylist was able to turn this article of clothing into something perfect for women’s new image, informal and dynamic, bringing this shirt to the entire world’s attention and into high fashion.
They say that her choice for purchasing that fabric was based on legal reasons. At the time, jersey wasn’t included among the materials used for women’s clothing; this gave Chanel the possibility to make clothes and get around the non-compete agreement stipulated with a neighboring store, which bound her to making only hats.
Jersey turned out to be a real revolution, and it is still commonly used nowadays to make articles of clothing for sports wear, casual attire, and t-shirts in particular.
French sailors 1900
French sailors 1900 wearing typical uniform

Chanel' second great intuition

The second great intuition also came from the sea, and from the English Channel once again. During her stay in Deauville, intrigued by the French sailors, Chanel got the idea of transforming some elements of their typical uniform into a classic article of clothing for women’s fashion.
One of these items was a shirt with horizontal white and blue stripes, also known as Chemise Breton due to its origins in Brittany. The shirt was inspired by the ones used by the French Navy since the 1800s. They had been standardized and made official by a decree dated 27 March 1858, which determined their use, number, size, and color of the stripes.
In the early 1900s, the nautical style had started to spread from the navy to sport and recreational uses, for men, as well as for young boys and girls.
Chanel’s objective was to adapt this item worn by men and workers into something shaped for a woman’s body. And that was exactly what she did in just a few years, with long and short dresses, shirts and sweaters, making place for this style into fashion history.
Coco Chanel’s sailor-style was also enriched by jersey’s softness and elasticity. Even if they weren’t actual t-shirts as we intend them today, they nonetheless represented an indisputably important historical reference.
Claudio Spuri, Il tatuaggio di stoffa (The fabric tattoo)