Striped Clothing: Chic Fashion Find with Fascinating History

Striped clothing is especially fashionable and trendy right now. Even when the trend dies, the striped knit top will remain an essential part of creating the classic nautical look.

Striped suits are an upscale conservative look for men’s and women’s professional wear. Stripe shirts and neckties also are business essentials.

It hasn’t always been this way.

The Secret History of Colorful Stripes

The story of colorful stripes, as told by Michael Pastoreau in The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes (2003, Washington Square Press, Jody Gladding, trans.), tells how striped clothing made a remarkable turn-around in public opinion.

People hated stripes in the Middle Ages. Colorful stripes were confusing because they couldn’t tell the figure from the ground. God’s world was orderly, so stripes were attributed to the devil.

Only Social Outcasts Wore Stripes

This visual confusion was such a big deal; striped clothing was worn only by prisoners, whores, itinerant actors and clowns, and penniless penitents in a few religious orders.

Pastoreau spends a good deal of the book explaining all the peculiarities of this point of view.

How Striped Garments Became Chic

Stripes were not very easy to weave, either, before technology. We see in very old fabrics that handcrafted textiles do not have the perfect warp and woof of modern, machine-woven cloth.

Then the Enlightenment put a whole different spin on stripes. No one expected a small band of poorly-clad colonial upstarts to defeat the British Army at a time when Britannia ruled the waves?

It was so unexpected, Pastoreau declares:

“Everything changes in 1775. In one decade, the decade of the American revolution, the stripe, still rare and exotic a generation earlier, begins to invade the world of clothing, textiles, emblems, and decor. This is the beginning of the romantic and revolutionary stripe, born in the New World, but which is going to find the soil of old Europe particularly fertile ground. In fact, it is the beginning of a very widespread phenomenon that will last more than half a century, involving all social classes and profoundly transforming the visual and cultural status of stripes and striped surfaces.” (p. 45)

How Wearing Stripes Became a Political Statement

Wearing striped clothing becomes a way to express support for a movement toward freedom. At first, people alternate two colors. Once the French Revolution tri-color comes into the picture, people experiment with three or more colors.

Technology took the drudgery out of weaving perfectly straight lines, and stripes proliferated.

Stripes Can Denote Rank or Family

Striped clothing and flags began to be used in Asia, Africa, and South America, where colored “bands allow for distinguishing ethnicities, class and familial groups.”

Red, white, and blue stripes came to influence flags around the world. Colorful stripes were used for tents because they seemed to be at once exotic and playful.

Why the First Bathingsuits Were Striped

There is another turning point in the history of striped clothing. Pastoreau notes, “Over the course of the decades, the seaside stripe, having become the stripe of vacations and summer, no longer has only to do with sailors’ clothes and bathers’ health. It has taken over the world of leisure, of games and sports, of childhood and youth. From being healthy, fashionable, and maritime, it has become playful, athletic, and happy” (p.74).

Indeed, there is something perennially chic and ship-shape about the colorful stripes for the knit top with blue, red, or some other bold color alternating with white.

“The presence of white seems to confer on them [striped leisure garments] a quality of unfailing neatness and freshness,” he asserts (p. 73).

Pastorneau argues that stripes still retain, in certain uses, that old aura of the person who is outside mainstream and polite society.

Are Stripes Still A Little Naughty?

He writes, “the ‘rogue’ stripe of the 1900s is still very much present today in advertising, comic strips, and cartoons. A simple horizontally striped jersey is enough to present a dirty street urchin, a thug, a gangster, or some other character who is disquieting but not necessarily a full-fledged criminal” (p. 83).

But he is French, and I am not completely persuaded. By contrast, the pinstripe suit and striped tie suggest professionalism, often at a high level in the legal, banking, or investment areas.

Stripes Create Order

I agree with this conclusion: “Displayed on human bodies, stripes fulfill these same functions: to signal, to classify, to check, to establish a hierarchy . . . The stripe is always an instrument of social taxonomy, and it places individuals into groups, and those groups into the whole of society” (p. 89).

Striped clothing suggests humans are trying to impose order on reality; Pastorneau argues, in the same way, that the hoe, the rake, and the plow making straight furrow creating order out of chaotic nature.

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