Striped Clothing: Snazzy, Showy, Spirited

Striped clothing, once the devil's cloth, now reigns from snazzy banker's pinstripes to spirited and colorful cabana prints. When the craze dies, the striped knit top will remain an essential nautical look.

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Whether you choose a bold red striped button-down shirt, chevron pieced stipes in a long, floowing maxiskirt, or variegated cabana stripes in the boldest of colors, stripes are fashion news right now.

But people used to hate stripes!

The Secret History of Colorful Stripes

Stiped clothing has made a remarakable turn-around in public opinion, recounts Michael Pastoreau in The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes(2003, Washington Square Press, Jody Gladding, trans.).

Stripes were the "devil's cloth" in the Middle Ages. God's world was orderly, they reasoned, and striped fabrics were confusing. Which color was the background? Which color was the figure?

Such a confusing fabric clearly this was the devil's work, our superstitious forebears concluded.

Only Social Outcasts Wore Stripes

This visual confusion such a big deal, striped clothing was worn only by prisoners, whores, itinerant actors and clowns. Penniless penitents in a few religious orders also adopted striped garb as a sign of humility.

Oh how far stripes have come when pinstripes are preferred by pecunious bankers and horizontally striped tee-shirts are the garb of hardworking sailors.

How Striped Garments Became Chic

Stripes also posed challenges for weavers. Handcrafted textiles do not have the perfect warp and woof of modern, machine woven cloth, so stripes often lacked crisp lines.

Then the Enlightenment put a whole different spin on stripes, Pastoreau tells. Strange to say, the American Revolution upturns everyone's world view to the point that stripes now gain respectability.

Britannia ruled the waves. No one expected a small band of poorly clothed and equipped upstart colonists to defeat the world's greatest military force.

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)

If this is so, should we be surprised the stripe is making a showy comeback as politics in the USA, Europe, and India is upended by new nativist movements? You decide!

How Wearing Stripes Became a Political Statement

Wearing striped clothing became a statement of support for freedom. At first, people alternate two colors. Once the French Revolution tri-color came into the picture, people experimented 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 are used throughout the world where colored bands distinguish "ethnicities, class and familial groups."

Red, white, and blue stripes are prominent in flags. Colorful stripes were used for tents because because they seem to be at once exotic and the playful.

Why the First Bathingsuits Were Striped

Another turning point in the history of striped clothing was the invention of the bathing suit. Pastoreau notes that the "seaside stripe" is now playful wear for "vacations and summer" and is no longer strictly for sailors.

Stripes have "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).

Perennially chic and shipshape, the colorful stripes of the knit tee-shirt with blue, red, or some other bold color alternating with white has jaunty air. Here is how you can achieve nautical fashion style.

"The presence of white seems to confer on [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).

I'm not completely persuaded by this argument. The pinstripe suit and striped tie suggest professionalism, a snazzy style 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. 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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