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Earning (and wearing) one’s stripes has not always been black and white.

The humble stripe has something of a checkered past. In his colorful and illuminating history of stripes, The Devil’s Cloth, Michel Pastoureau reveals the hidden history of this simple pattern.

Stripes on clothing can be seen in mural paintings and various other creative works as early as the year 1000. Historically, they were a pejorative symbol that was used to mark out any and all characters who transgressed the social order in some way. This has, over time, included those who had been condemned (criminals), the infirm (lepers), the inferior (servants), the dishonorable (prostitutes) and the damned (non-Christians).

The medieval belief that stripes were inherently evil spread from the realm of symbolism into reality. When the Carmelite order of Christianity arrived in Paris in 1254, scandal erupted. The striped brethren’s cloaks were considered so deviant from the cloaks of any other Christian order that they immediately became subject to ridicule and abuse. So much so that in 1295, Pope Boniface VIII banned striped cloaks for monks of all religious orders. But even before medieval times, plenty of texts specified a ban on clothes that were striped or even just bicolored. Brightly colored stripes were deemed particularly offensive—gaudy and unseemly.

Just as scholars debate the reasons behind the original negative perceptions of stripes, so too do they debate why attitudes ultimately changed. One theory is that toward the end of the Middle Ages, as towns in northern Italy were recovering from a late outbreak of the plague, young people celebrated by indulging in what was considered excessive and transgressive dressing—wearing stripes.

Meanwhile, some historians claim that the acceptance of stripes can be traced to zoologists’ changing impressions of the zebra. The black-and-white striped animal was no longer considered a wild donkey, but instead a harmonious, elegantly dressed horse-like creature.

And Pastoureau describes a third possible theory: Stripes made the move from “diabolic to domestic” as they became typical on uniforms given to servants and various domestic staff. They then became aristocratic, and eventually, at the beginning of the first period of romanticism in the 18th century, wearing stripes became fashionable.

In the first decade of the 20th century, stripes finally hit peak chic. As going to the beach became less and less an aristocratic pastime, and instead something all could enjoy, stripes became a popular way to adorn beachwear. But even then, stripes only held a certain fashion cachet if they were colored against white.

We still haven’t entirely shed our stripe hang-ups. Consider, for example, the stripes on a prisoner’s uniform, which seem to depict the bars of a prison cell. And even now, the striped shirt isn’t so black and white; something as simple as the cut of the fabric and the width of the lines can speak to the wearer’s taste, location, even occupation.

  • Words:
    Lucy Ballantyne
  • Photography:
    Courtesy of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and Sol LeWitt
  • Words:
    Lucy Ballantyne
  • Photography:
    Courtesy of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and Sol LeWitt
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