The Non-linear History of Stripes


All information in this blog post came from Michel Pastoureau’s book “The Devil’s Cloth. A History of Stripes”.  This blog post essentially is a very condensed summary of the book. 


                   “I got stripes, stripes around my shoulders
                    I got chains, chains around my feet
                    I got stripes, stripes around my shoulders
                   And them chains, them chains,
                   They’re about to drag me down”
                                               Johnny Cash – “I got stripes”

Even though no western prisoners are wearing stripes these days, it is hard to imagine not knowing what the lyrics in Johnny Cash’s song imply. The archetype of a prisoner wearing striped clothing, although not dominating the present day media, is still very strong. Besides reminding us of prisoner uniforms, stripes in clothing carry a great deal of meaning and a history so rich that it will be difficult for me to cover all of it in one blog post. Nevertheless, I will do my best to unveil some of it, touch on the meaning of wearing stripes and hopefully inspire some of you to include stripes into your wardrobe.

It is hard to pinpoint the time stripes in clothing originated, but they started to show up in paintings and literature around 12th century. Just like with prisoner uniforms mentioned by Johny Cash, stripes have almost always carried a negative stigma with relation to the person wearing them. This unfavourable connotation of stripes goes deeper than a simple dislike for stripes. Back in those days clothing was highly controlled. For example, decrees existed that prohibited clerics from wearing two coloured clothes. Plain fibre carried with it an ordinary but wholesome meaning, whereas two toned or striped clothing had a slightly more ominous significance. Animosity towards stripes goes as far as creation of laws that required certain categories of outcasts such as bastards, condemned and prostitutes to wear two coloured and striped clothing.

Pastoureau, Michel. The Devil's Cloth. A History of Stripes, 2003. 15. Print.
Three young women condemned to prostitution, saved by Saint Nicolas. Painted mural, northern Italy, about 1340 Pastoureau, Michel. The Devil’s Cloth. A History of Stripes, 2003.

The adverse undertone of stripes was further perpetuated by their use in literature of the era, where the stripe carried a highly pejorative meaning. Books have great power to influence societal norms and preferences.  They enable readers to extrapolate into the real world around them the characteristics attached to heroes in a book’s narrative. More often than not evil or treacherous characters in literature of that time wore stripes, thus exacerbating the attached stigma. This negative portrayal of striped clothing did not help its overall appeal with the society of that era.

This vintage American History photo features Mormon polygamists in prison, wearing the traditional black-and-white-striped uniforms. Photo taken at Utah Penitentiary, circa 1889. Source: Fine Art America

The inferior status of stripes throughout history not only show up in their early presentation with stripes ascribed to societal outcasts, but also with their association to prisoners and sailors. It is not clear why the association with sailors was considered unfavourable at first, but on closer examination it becomes apparent that sailors donning stripes were crew members who perform tasks under the leadership of masters and officers. However, it can be argued that the nautical stripe evolved from the nature of the garment itself — an undershirt, which was used to retain warmth and was cut out of the fabric related to hosiery. At the time the sailor stripe was spreading throughout the Navy, production of striped clothing articles was often involuntarily due to technical reasons. Still, what is indisputable is that the marine stripe appeared on lower ranking and subordinate professions, which once again carries an unfavourable association.

French sailors in Breton striped uniforms.

Fortunately things began changing for stripes in the 16th century. During this period a new order of stripe was starting to be established and even the “positive” stripe was beginning to emerge. Although stripes still emphasize an inferior status, since they were primarily being worn by domestic staff, they were no longer derogatory in nature. This period also sees the birth of the vertical stripe, which was mostly worn by aristocrats and thus began to carry a status enhancing value.

Rev. Calvert Richard Jones, Portrait of a Lady, possibly a domestic servant, in a striped dress, late 1840s.

The increase in the positive view of stripes gains even more momentum after the American Revolution. During this time the stripe carried the political and ideological meaning associated with American colonies rebelling against the British Crown. The American flag, carrying 13 red and white stripes, becomes a symbol for the fight for freedom and new ideas with the stripe itself starting to experience a rebirth. By the end of 18th century, the stripe was taking over fashion.  The divide between the vertical aristocratic and horizontal peasant stripe was starting to close.

The American Revolution, George Washington at Valley Forge, President George Washington on horseback in snow at Valley Forge, by Percy Moran, circa 1911. Source: Fine Art America

The view of stripes further benefited from advances during the Industrial Revolution. With an increase in mechanization of the production of thread and fabrics, the use of stripes in clothing and decor was beginning to expand. This expansion was furthered by the invention of the spinning machine by James Hergreave, mule Jenny by Samuel Crompton and the loom by Joseph-Mavie Jacquard. All of these technological advances have aided the positive association with stripes by allowing them to become more widespread and accessible to people of the time.

Holiday-makers wearing striped, one-piece swimming suits offer piggyback rides on the beach of Ostend, Belgium in this July 1, 1938, photo.

With the rise in popularity of ocean and beach culture, the less alluring sailor stripes were not only stepping out of the subservient category and onto the shore, but were also crossing into the fashion world. Striped beach clothing is predominant throughout the mid 19th century. Tents, seats, bathing suits, children’s clothing, and women’s beach dresses are nearly all striped. As the beach becomes accessible to all societal groups and not only the wealthiest, stripes were starting to become more widespread. With people of other income classes adopting the habits and fashions of the wealthiest, stripes on the beach are firmly rooted as “chic”. The popularity of the beach stripe only started to slow down in the 70’s and 80’s, but it did not disappear and was starting to move into other areas of life. First into decor, as it was being used trying to evoke exotic feelings and reminders of tropical beaches, and then further into fashion, with younger generations bringing in new trends.

Pascale, Veronique and Nathalie: the children of Bernard Bonte, President of Saint James, 1976.

Childhood stripes are another interesting phenomenon. It refers to children being dressed in striped clothing and emerged sometime in the middle of 19th century. This further improved the positive view of stripes. With children of the time wearing striped clothing, the stripe started taking on a youthful and playful meaning.

Al Capone, relaxing in a striped robe.

These days stripes do not carry much of an adverse association and their use is widespread, showing up everywhere from fashion to decor.  Stripes have achieved and retained “chic” status for over 100 years now, ever since Coco Chanel introduced the Breton stripe in her 1917 collection. The stripe has further evolved and now it is easy to find stripes in all colours, combinations of colours and directions.  There world seems to have come full circle on stripes and has seen them transition from the garments of the outcasts of society all the way to innocent children.

Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso, both wearing stripes.

Even though the stripe is no longer reserved for outcasts and those on the fringes of society, it still carries a “bold” association with it. Stripes attract the eye, they creates visual discrepancy with regards to what surrounds them, and as a result always stand out. Because of this characteristic it is safe to say that stripes can be used to send a signal or make a statement, be it a warning in the form of a road crossing, a striped suit worn by Al Capone or a chic striped top worn by a modern day fashionista. The history of stripes is full of twists and turns and at times it may be unclear wether the implication behind striped clothing is positive, negative or neutral. One thing is for certain though, stripes are here to stay for good.

How do you feel about stripes? Would you incorporate stripes into your wardrobe? And what is your preference for stripes? Bold statement stripes or more of a subdued pastel stripe?


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27 thoughts on “The Non-linear History of Stripes

  1. Thank you for all the work you put into this post Anya! It was SO interesting 🙂 I always avoided stripes – I don’t think I owned one striped garment in 50 years which I know is strange but I just naturally veered away from them. Now I love them – I love sewing with them and seeing them on others especially in a creative way that emphasizes the design lines of the pattern. I wouldn’t say I’m ready to go BOLD with them but I’m certainly more adventurous with them than ever. “When I grow old I’ll wear stripes”. 🙂

    1. Thank you, and you are so welcome! It was very interesting reading all about it and then trying to condense it all.
      I totally understand! I also avoided stripes for the longest time. Now I am wondering if it has anything to do with stripes being so demanding of attention. You are bound to be noticed in stripes, even if they are neutral. I agree, you can really do something very interesting creatively with stripes. And I’d love to see you in BOLD stripe! You go, girl! You more than earned your stripes 😉

  2. This is so interesting!! I hadn’t ever thought about where prisoners’ stripes came from, and it’s so interesting that association lasted through so many centuries.

    1. Thank you!! I am so glad you enjoyed it. I also never really thought about it, but now it makes sense. I bet prisoner stripe also has something to do with how visible it is and how easy it is to distinguish a prisoner from guards and in the event of prisoner escape. But it definitely puts a negative feeling towards all the stripes.

  3. Thanks for your research! I found this fascinating. I love my children in stripes, but don’t tend to wear too much for myself. I do love a good striped rib-knit though, for an accent to solid colored knits. I think I got that from my one year subscription to Ottobre Design magazine. I also love garments that play with stripe direction.

    1. I agree, something about children in stripes is so cute and pure! I love seeing children wearing stripes. Oh, I’ve never thought of a stripes rib knit as an accent! That is a great idea 🙂

  4. Thanks Anya. I love stripes and where grab striped fabric whenever I find it. This article is really interesting.

    1. You are so welcome. I am glad you enjoyed it. I am the same way and I tend to buy all the striped fabric I see… It gets really silly when I end up with the same fabric from two different stores… oh well!

    1. You are welcome, and I am so glad you enjoyed it. I love autumn colours too! But I never thought to explore stripe in that colour. That is such a great idea!

  5. That was a great read Anya!
    I’ve never liked stripes and only have 2 garments with them, one I made as a toile the other a cheap jumper in the sale, but I’m still don’t feel right in them. Love to see them on others though. 🙂👏🏻

    1. Thank you! I totally understand. Stripes, just like other print or colours, are not everyone’s cup of tea! I think it is so important to listen to how you feel and follow that. If you don’t feel good wearing something then there is no need to do it! I always enjoy seeing how others wear stripes too.

  6. For me, horizontal, higher contrast, or brightly colored stripes must be narrow to fit in my wardrobe. It seems about 1/2 inch wide is about the widest I’ll go in any case, regardless of colors or orientation. I absolutely will not wear anything much more more than pinstripes in pants – too much like clown pants in my mind.

    1. It is so interesting how it works! I also enjoy higher contrast stripe. And I even don’t like more than two colours in stripe. I like it on others but not me. As for pants, I completely agree! Wide stripe on the bottom is too much for me. But even pinstriped pants are crossing the line these days. I think it is due to me trying to fit in too much back in university and wearing a lot of pinstriped pants…

  7. This is such a great post! I love it! I knew about the negative prison connotation but that mural from the fourteenth century is mind-blowing! As an aside, I sort of love the angle of stripes on their dresses… 🙂

    1. Thank you! I was so mindblown by the history as well! I also had no idea it went back that far. And I agree, there is something about those dresses the ladies wear. That stripe in on point!

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