My studio is just up the road from one of those evangelical churches so loving and beloved of President Trump and PM Morrison.

Last Sunday I saw a chap going into church with a popped collared T-shirt of a well-known brand with the crocodile logo. This struck me as a bit odd, almost oxymoronic, but it may take some time to explain why.

We’re off to Nimes, a large town in Provence in the south of France.  It is not as well known as the smaller towns of Avignon (to where the Popes fled from Rome), or Aix (where legions of French artists painted in the southern light), or Arles (where van Gogh retreated to paint his best pictures), but Nimes is very interesting.

Nimes has been an administrative centre for over 2,000 years, since the Romans established it on the route as they headed westwards towards Spain and Portugal. The surrounding area has always been a productive agricultural basin, producing both food and, more particularly, cotton and flax.

These clothing materials provided the wealth for the construction of the Greek inspired temple in Nimes known as the Maison Carrée, one of the most important historic buildings in the south of France.

It was the inspiration for many neoclassical buildings including the Eglise de la Madeleine in Paris, and the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, who had seen it and commissioned a stucco model of it when he was the US ambassador to France in 1785.

It sits on one side of the main town square, and on the other is the totally modern Carré d’Art, a multi-faceted media and community centre, library and roof top restaurant that the French call a ‘médiatheque’. For me it is Norman Foster’s best building: putting a well-proportioned and beautifully detailed contemporary face right in the heart of a historic town. Bravo. But I digress.

Nimes became increasingly known as the centre for the trading of cloth of all types: canvas, linen and cotton, and most notably a very durable and robust close woven fabric, dyed in a dark blue.

It became so famous in the 19th century as the working man’s material that, when exported to the United States, it became known as ‘denim’ from the stamp on the bill of sale: ‘cloth de Nimes’.

The pants (and bib+brace overalls) were often made in Genoa, just along the coast from Nimes (and home to Renzo Piano) and this location was again corrupted by the Americans into the word ‘jeans’. This from a country that pronounces Notre Dame as ‘Notter Daam’. But I digress once more.

Nimes prospered, and developed into a town to rival other major centres, such as Verona. Each had an arena: a stone-built, oval-shaped, steep-sided centre for entertainment. 

The largest of these, the Colosseum in Rome, was known for the staging of mock battles, chariot races and reputedly, but incorrectly, fights between Christians and lions. 

The arena in Nimes was similarly used for entertainment but, being close to the Mediterranean, was often flooded with seawater for simulated naval battles between ships, floated out into the arena, providing entertainment for the descendants of Asterix and Obelix. 

Unlike Rome, with its lions, the animal of choice in Nimes was the crocodile, sourced from far across the Mediterranean as the Romans extended their conquests.  Crocodiles were wrestled, were part of the battles and again, maybe apocryphally, some Christians were killed in crocodile fights. 

The crocodile eventually became the symbol of Nimes, and today that crocodile, with a fountain sprouting from the middle of its back, symbolising the spas and fresh water of the town, can be found everywhere: on flags, on signs, on tourist posters and even on the street pavement. 

This last location features cast round bronze Crocodiles to show the original outline of the Roman walls. It’s a commissioned design created by that quintessential French designer, M. Philippe Starck. (spelt with one L, you can tell the knock off furniture because his name is often spelt with two L’s.) But again, I digress.

Tone on Tuesday 23: On Nimes

A  Starck bronze plaque which may or may not have been prised from the streets of Nimes.

It was during the 19th century that the French cloth makers and fashion houses established their headquarters in Nimes in order to be close to the action in the dealing of cloth.  One of the most famous of all of those houses was so imbedded in the traditions of Nimes that it adopted the crocodile, with its curved tail, as its corporate symbol. 

So, the next time you see someone wearing an elegantly tailored T-shirt, in fuchsia pink or iridescent blue, with an embroidered crocodile on their breast, you might gently remind them that they’re wearing a symbol of Christian martyrdom from Roman times.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected]