Adopted by workers, women and stars, the tank top is made in Marseille and exhibited at Mucem

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Small sleeveless cotton top, this iconic garment has been around the world and knows nothing about the class struggle.

Worker clothing became symbol of free women in the “roaring twenties”, then adopted by stars like Freddy Mercury, the tank top is at the center of the exhibition “Model clothes” at the Mucem in Marseille, which runs until December 6. Ancestral, the tank top knows a new life since 1980 and is still manufactured on historic machines, in Marseille.

Originally, the tank top, this “bottom garment”, was a skin knit formed from a single piece of tubular cotton, absorbing sweat well thanks to its knitted mesh, reminds AFP Colline Zellal, associate commissioner from the exhibition “Model Clothes” at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (Mucem) around five “iconic” clothes that have crossed eras and fashions.

Work overalls, kilt, espadrille, jogging – also, originally underwear, before conquering athletes from the English universities of Cambridge and Oxford, then becoming the uniform of hip hop culture -, rub shoulders with the tank top either with original pieces by creators, or through their representations in popular culture (music, comics, cinema, posters, video games).

Particularly suitable for physical work, from factories to major seaports like that of Marseille, the longshoreman takes its name from “longshoring”, the action of unloading goods at the quay, explains Isabelle Crampes, exhibition curator, engaged in a approach to supporting textile know-how around the world.

On a large canvas by the painter Antoine Serra (1908-1995), exhibited at the Mucem, a docker dressed in a white tank top demonstrated in Marseille against the Indochina war.

In the first half of the 20th century, the tank top embodied a certain image – sometimes very stereotypical – of virility and the proletarian. Far from Marseille, it is the American actor Marlon Brando who wears it torn in A streetcar called desire (Elia Kazan 1951) for her role as Stanley Kowalski, emblem of a “brutal manhood“.

Marlonn Brando in “A streetcar names desire” by Elia Kazan (1951). (CHARLES K FELDMAN GROUP / WARNER)

But the tank top will also serve “of standard to a new femininity” in the “roaring twenties (1920-1930), recalls Isabelle Crampes. The “boys“, these women with short hair claiming their independence,”start wearing it even without a bra, which is a great freedom for a time when corsets were still worn“, she underlines.

The exhibition shows prints by photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigues immortalizing his muse, the model of Romanian origin Renée Perle, in a tank top and elegant white pants on the French Riviera.

Jacques Henri Lartigue. Renée Perle. 1930, Juan-les-Pins. Modern print from original negative cropped according to the work in the 1930 album. Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, Charenton-le-Pont.
Jacques Henri Lartigue. Renée Perle. 1930, Juan-les-Pins. Modern print from original negative cropped according to the work in the 1930 album. Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, Charenton-le-Pont. (© Ministry of Culture (France), MAP-AAJHL)

Later, Freddy Mercury, singer of the group Queen, made it one of her favorite clothes. Worn in both feminine and masculine fashion, this little top, sometimes also nicknamed marcel, is today a “basic” wardrobe.

A Marseilles family business, Sugar, continues to manufacture it with knitting looms from the 1950s. The meeting of the Tokatlian siblings – Jean-Richard, Anne-Marie and Rosemonde, children of a tailor and a leather worker – with the tank top is made at random from a stroll in a Marseille street in 1980.

My brother found a white cotton tank top from a wholesaler. He brought it to me and told me do something about it. I wore it to a dye craftsman and suddenly in the colors, the blues, the greens, the pinks, it was magnificent! “, remembers Anne-Marie Tissot (née Tokatlian), co-founder of Sugar.

Circular knitting machine, Sugar workshop. 2019, Marseille. Photogram of the film Gestures of manufacturing of the tank top, 2020. Production Mucem, Marseille.
Circular knitting machine, Sugar workshop. 2019, Marseille. Photogram of the film Gestures of manufacturing of the tank top, 2020. Production Mucem, Marseille. (© Production Mucem)

The brand is exhibiting at the ready-to-wear show in Paris and “suddenly the crowd, we have the whole world on the stand for the tank top. Joseph in London (famous ready-to-wear store), New York stores, it was amazing“, she remembers.

Today, in the workshop of the La Rose district, the looms bought from the old equipment manufacturers of the port continue their delicate circular ballet, with their hundreds of needles, their carousel of spools of cotton thread which knit the famous tube of cotton in Richelieu knit, under the watchful eye of Pierre Parisi. “When we are dealing with such old, historic machines, we have to pamper them“, explains to AFP this technical operator, guardian of a unique know-how.

With around twenty employees, Sugar manufactures handcrafted, in collaboration with a dyer based in France and cotton grown in Europe, hundreds of tank tops per month with the desire to make “sustainable fashion“. With this “made in France, we are a bit the last of the Mohicans“while so many textile factories have been relocated to Asia and elsewhere, smiles Anne-Marie.



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