Stripes are back again, with a vengeance. This season, there are all sorts, horizontal, vertical, monochrome, multicolour, to the point that some garments look very much like technicolour bar codes.
The motif has a long history. It was popular in some parts of the ancient world, as shown by an Ancient Roman mosaic with actors in striped robes. Much later, in Medieval times, stripes acquired negative connotations, and were considered as the ‘devil’s clothing,’ a status made official by Pope Boniface VIII who issued a bull banning striped clothing from all religious orders. Perhaps because of this, stripes became a hallmark of people who, by choice or by necessity, were outcasts from society. Jugglers, clowns and prostitutes, but also condemned prisoners and executioners, heretics and lepers.
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Thankfully fashions change, and by the 1700s stripes were considered chic once more, particularly in interior design. This was particularly the case in America and France, where the revolutions found their visual rallying-points in striped flags. A century or so later, stripes received another helping hand from the French Navy, when the so-called horizontally-striped Breton shirt, which for years had been in use amongst Brittany fishermen as a knitted item of underwear, was introduced as part of the seaman’s uniform in 1858. In the naval version, the Breton top had 21 stripes, supposedly one for each of Napoleon’s victories, though this is probably an urban myth – analogous to the legend whereby the Royal Navy’s three-striped collar referred to Nelson’s principal victories. The stripes in the French naval uniform had a practical function, making a man who had fallen overboard easier to see in the waves.
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By the late 1800s, stripes had become a feature of swimwear and seaside style throughout Europe. But it was the Breton shirt, that Coco Chanel saw during her visits to the French coast in the early 1900s, that spurred her to introduce it into her nautical-themed collections. By doing so, Chanel implicitly raised the status of the design, from a purely functional item to a classier piece of fashion, that she intended to be worn with long flared trousers.
Later, stripes became part of the arty set, adopted by Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Jackson Pollock and others. By the 1960s, nautical stripes had become a constant feature of fashion, popularized by actors on screen such as Marlon Brando and James Dean. Today they are horizontal, vertical, diagonal and colourful, but, considering their origin, there is no doubt that with stripes you’ll be making a splash.