For those of us who love stripes, it is fascinating to learn something of their controversial history. In this short gem of a book, French historian Michel Pastoureau traces the meaning of stripes from the Middle Ages in Europe to the end of the twentieth century. No other pattern, he argues, carries such complex meanings. True to the book’s title, initially the meanings were all negative. In drawings and paintings, outsiders, reprobates, and low status individuals were rendered with stripes. The foremost striped villain was the devil himself.
Why were stripes so disruptive? First of all, many medieval clerics believed the Bible prohibited people from wearing clothes of two colors. Second, Pastoureau argues that to the medieval eye, striped figures stood out aggressively from the background, marking an individual who stood out from the collective. To illustrate his point, he tracks a decades-long scandal in thirteenth century Europe over a medieval religious order that wore striped capes. These proved so controversial that they were outlawed by several successive popes.
So how do stripes move from dangerous to stylish? Well, the forbidden is always attractive to those who like to push the boundaries. Thus in the later Middle Ages and into the Renaissance subtle stripes emerged in the clothing of the upper classes. However, it was not until the American Revolution, with its striped flag, that stripes became a symbol of liberty. This new meaning carried on into the French Revolution. From then on, stripes showed up everywhere—furniture, underwear, bed ticking, sports clothing…
Nonetheless, Pastoureau maintains that stripes have not entirely lost their negative meaning. Consider the striped prisoner outfit, something that was quite common not too long ago. As the medieval viewer knew, stripes make you stand out. “Dare to wear stripes,” proposes a recent advertisement, suggesting that there is still something devilish in this cloth.