Blurred lines – a brief history of stripes

From fashion to food packaging, the humble stripe is one pattern with timeless appeal, but reading between the lines its history is one of conflicting significance  

Few patterns have enjoyed such longstanding, universal appeal as the iconic stripe. Yet, despite its seemingly modest design, this linear shape has been a catalyst for social outrage as well as a symbol of emancipation and acceptance. From the medieval period up to modern day, there’s a rich history that can be gleaned from reading between these ever-changing lines.

If you were living in the Middle Ages, you’d certainly have thought twice before donning a stripy number upon leaving the house. In his compelling book, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes, Michel Pastoureau recounts how in 1310, a cobbler in northern France was condemned to death because, according to local archives, “he had been caught in striped clothes.” This was a time where what you wore could distinguish social class, moral hierarchy and even family members, any deviation from such prescriptive modes of dress was seen as a cause for scandal, sometimes punishable by death. Pastoreau aligns the introduction of the transgressive stripe to a group of Carmelite monks who arrived in Paris during the 13th century wearing a habit made up of brown and white strips. Their religious attire, which they for many years refused to give up, caused them years of abuse and provoked the nickname ‘les frères barrés’, or barred brothers, which according to Pastoreau, connotes negative associations and marks of illegitimacy. In the Western world, it was thought that the juxtaposition of two colours was forbidden in religious doctrine and a general ban was introduced to prevent the clergy from wearing stripes.

In the medieval period, the reprehensible act or wearing stripes was commonly attributed to those living on the borders of society and those deemed disturbers of the established order. Whether in storybooks or historical documentation, the stripe came to represent a pejorative form of dress; often used in descriptions of jokers, heretics, cripples, prostitutes and even the devil.

Little is known as to why the stripe was seen a symbol for scandal and prohibition. Pastoreau hazards a theory by citing a line from the Bible with states that: “You will not wear upon yourself a garment that is made of two.”

In the 19th and 20th century, the derogatory association of stripes in clothing saw it become an iconic symbol in distinguishing prisoners. Bold, horizontal lines were thought to prevent a camouflage and thus make it harder for convicts to escape. They also mimicked the bars behind which prisoners were detained. During the second world war, stripes were adopted as the pattern worn by those incarcerated in concentration camps; the loose, mainly-cotton uniforms were referred to as striped pyjamas and marked a stark contrast to the dark, solid coloured outfits worn by the Nazi guards.

The significance of the stripe as a positive and negative pattern is one that runs parallel in modern times. Although it had marked a form of ostracism during times of war, it also became a symbol of unity and freedom in the aftermath of social and political upheaval. The French tricolour flag that we know today was created as a symbol of equality and democracy with the simple solid stripes signifying a breakaway from the autocratic past. Similarly, the 13 stripes featured on the American flag represent the original colonies that declared independence from Great Britain following the American civil war.

As stripes became emblematic as symbols of freedom and hope, in fashion the inauguration of the trend has its roots in the northern region of France. In the mid-nineteenth century, the white and navy top, originally referred to as the marinière or matelot shirt, was the chosen uniform for seafarers of the French navy. The popularity of this nautical attire in Breton prompted its epithet – the Breton stripe. In 1846, Queen Victoria helped to accentuate the trend when she dressed her son in a sailor suit on a public outing.

Since then, ‘la mode Breton’ has enjoyed a sartorial shift from ship to shops with prolific designers including Coco Chanel and Jean-Paul Gautier honouring the trend.

Perhaps the ability for the stripe to withstand hundreds of years of contestation and cultural re-imaginings is that a simple design like this can hold an intriguing purpose in many spheres. From road signs to sportswear, sweet wrappers to emblems, the stripe is one pattern that remains distinctive and open to a myriad of interpretations. It’s unisex, ubiquitous appeal makes it a design that’s coveted by all and one that’s always in the fast lane.

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