Stripes – A Brief History

I am not a pattern person. Neutrals, preferably dark, are my preference but I do covet a stripe now and again. When we think of dynamic and ‘out-there’ prints, we automatically alight on animal print or bold abstracts, so it was with a heightened interest that I discovered that stripes have their own amazing story. Read on….

Stripes are one of the oldest patterns around, having been used around the world since ancient times, mainly in woven fabric. Whilst creating striped textiles must have been a fairly natural process, the fact remains that stripes have not been a dominant pattern in any of the ancient cultures.  In fact, during the Middle Ages, stripes were used to distinguish individuals normally excluded from society from whom it was better to stay away (lepers, prostitutes, heretics and clowns). According to legend, in 1310 a French cobbler was sent to death for the sole reason he wore striped clothing!

In Michael Pastoreau’s book: The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric., medieval authors considered naturally striped animals, such as the zebra, as part of ‘Satan’s bestiary’. Pastoreau thinks this early aversion to stripes possibly came from two places. The first being old Bible verses banning people from wearing “a garment that is made of two.” The second is that in medieval times, children were taught to read images by sorting them into foreground and background layers. Stripes, with their alternating colours, would have been difficult to comprehend for the medieval person who preferred imagery with a clear background and foreground.

Moving on a few hundred years as we see Neo classical style (think Bridgerton) emerging as a counter movement to the highly ornamental styles that had gone before. Originating in India, the regency stripe, a symmetric combination of a wide stripe in one colour, surrounded by two or more narrower stripes in a second colour, appeared in upholstery and wall coverings and, occasionally, in clothing.

However, negative associations still remained. In the 18th century, stripes were used in North American penal colonies for prison uniforms. The high visibility of stripes was perfect for discouraging escape attempts as they were easily distinguishable. The broad, horizontal black and white stripes were considered both vulgar and humiliating for the wearer and, iconographically, suggested the parallel bars of the prison. In the book ‘The Language of Clothes’ Alison Lurie states that this pattern often appeared in pyjamas and nightdresses, sometimes sold as matching sets for husband and wife, humorously suggesting this was, perhaps, another kind of imprisonment!

In the early 1800s, the navies of the world began using striped clothing, often in blue and white, to make sailors easier to spot should they ever be lost at sea or need to be rescued for other reasons. In 1858 the French marinière sweater became the official undergarment of the French navy. It was made in knit wool jersey with either 20 or 21 blue stripes (representing Napolean’s victories) and 15 white stripes. The shirt was designed with a slight dip at the neckline to make it easy for a sailor to remove and wave around if he went overboard. The striped pattern aiding in creating a signal that could be seen at greater distance. At that time the French navy was centred in Brittany, so the shirt became known as a Breton stripe shirt. Stripes were also worn by French fishermen, further associating the pattern with France. By the end of the 19th century, many navies around the world had also taken on stripes for their uniforms, albeit in different configurations.

The French connection continues as the striped shirt was one of the first items of casual clothing separates sold by Coco Chanel in 1917. The marine colours and comfort of knit jersey, once representing hard work on the water, now symbolized lounging around on the French Riviera. The burgeoning sportswear industry helped ensure this shirt was a success in France, and eventually became so all over the world. The stripes were a symbol of freedom for women who didn’t always want to dress in lace and frills. A liberating alternative to corsets and bustles and were also seen in swimwear.

During the 1920s and 1930s Chanel was bringing the stripe to high fashion, but during the 1950s the striped shirt became a part of a rebellious youth culture, adopted by actors and artists such as Picasso, Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, James Dean and Marlon Brando. The striped shirt worn by Denice the Menace, (a popular ‘naughty’ children’s character) ensured that the stripe also became mainstream for children’s wear.

This rebellious attitude continued. From the beatnik 60’s to the grunge stars of the 90’s, such as Kurt Cobain. The rest of the 20th century and early 2000s saw the democratization of the striped top; it was adopted by intellectuals and artists, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Wayne, and, famously, designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who elevated the stripes to evening wear. Today, style icons, like the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, have successfully adopted striped clothing as a casual, more active look.

In The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie says ‘All obviously geometrical patterns, which are evenly spaced, seem to be related to the wish to order the universe in some way. Stripes seem to express a desire to ‘follow the line’, suggesting dependability and rectitude. The kind of effort involved seems to depend on the width of the stripes. Very broad ones tend to suggest organised physical effort of the sort necessary to members of an athletic team, Narrow stripes appear to have more in common with mental activity and intellectual order. Book keepers, accountants and clerks are traditionally pictured wearing shirts or blouses with the narrowest of black and white or navy and white stripes, imitating the ruled lines of a ledger.

Horizontal stripes were originally regarded as a sign of inferiority, as in a striped jersey worn by sailors being a symbol of their subordination to their captain. With the exception of beachwear (inspired by sailing apparel), they were worn by the common classes. Vertical stripes are, on the other hand, associated to upper class’ prestige and success.

In the 1920s striped ties became part of male fashion and were worn as part of a school uniform, first at public schools, then at universities. As they continued to wear striped attire in their professional and personal lives, stripes became associated with luxury and high fashion

A traditional pinstripe pattern consists of thin dashed lines, often used for clothing such as suits, jackets, pants and skirts. The first pinstripe suits were worn as bank uniforms with slightly different striping to identify employees for different banks. However, the popularity of pinstripe suits grew rapidly once it had spread across the Atlantic, taking American culture by storm in ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. The suit became the unofficial uniform of the Prohibition era, beloved of the ultra-stylish and anyone who wanted to stand out from the crowd and make a bold statement. It was popular not only with film stars and jazz musicians, but also with gangsters, the most famous of which was Al Capone using stripes to assert power and respectability. After Prohibition the suit became even more mainstream when huge stars such as Clark Gable and Cary Grant continued to popularise it. Clark Gable’s suit worn in Gone with the Wind may have even influenced the emergence of the flamboyant, flared-trousers, padded-shouldered zoot suit. 

But vertical striped suits do not have to be staid or boring: The designer Mr Fish opened his eponymous Mayfair boutique in 1969, from where he led the Peacock Revolution. His followers included actors, athletes, rock stars and royalty. Jean Paul Gaultier’s has his own take on the traditional 3 piece suit, one of which was the daring front piece of the recent V&A Fashioning Masculinities exhibition.

As a part of mainstream sartorial culture, it is one of a myriad of style options available to the modern man, or woman. In fact, the pinstripe definitely crossed the gender divide to become a basic component of women’s clothing, particularly in business, where it remained (until lockdown at least) popular with both genders.

In the 20th century, stripes became a key part of the fashion iconography for many brands. The pioneer was Adidas, which established its three-striped insignia in 1928, on the sneakers worn by athlete Lina Radke. The ‘go faster’ stripe remains popular today on their sports shoes and work out gear. Although ubiquitous, some designers have made stripes uniquely their own. Sonia Rykiel, began to design her own clothes at the end of the ’60s. Her first piece was almost surrealist, a simple but eccentric striped pullover that became a hit with the international press and ended up on the cover of Elle France. At the end of the ’80s, American designer Tommy Hilfiger, further underscored the power of red, white, and blue stripes. Linked to the colours of the U.S. flag, they became a true symbol of the American dream. Linked to the maritime theme are the stripes of Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, the multicolor beach “deck chair” pattern, woven into their knitted creations. Sir Paul Smith, the playful, colourful British designer, created his brand with signature stripes that are instantly recognisable.

I was interested in how the stripe, or the people who wear them, are perceived today.

My former teacher, Evana Maggiore, founder of Fashion Feng Shui International taught me that people who love stripes, a design feature of the wood element are active both physically and mentally, youthful, healthy, have a pioneering spirit, love to educate and often champion the underdog. Prof Dawnn Karen, a teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology and founder of the Fashion Psychology Institute, says “People who love stripes are often good at multitasking, have a lot going on in their lives, are physically active and wear many hats. They can get overwhelmed but it’s also indicative of someone who works well under pressure and lives life to the full”

Sounds a lot like me!

Although I’ve concentrated on horizontal and vertical, there are a number of other stripes to explore:


An awning stripe pattern is a bright and bold pattern with equally sized, fairly wide and vertical stripes of solid colour. They’re typically made with a darker colour against a white or light colour. Awning stripes are often used for coastal, beach and nautical decors. Another common name for this stripe is Block Stripe.


Balanced stripe patterns consist of several vertical, coloured stripes of different sizes, arranged in a symmetrical layout with a wide stripe in the centre, with some narrow stripes layered inside it and then surrounded by bands and narrow stripes.


Barcode stripes is characterized by stripes in various width and seemingly random composition. It’s a pattern based on the Universal Product Code, that was invented and patented by a guy named Woodland in 1951, to be used for coding products, where the 95 black and white vertical stripes represent combinations of 0s and 1s and can be read by a computer through a scanner. In the world of patterns, a barcode stripe doesn’t have to have 95 stripes and they can have other colours, monochrome or even in multiple colours. 


The Bayadere stripe style derives from India and has brightly coloured and horizontal stripes of various widths. The name comes from the Bayadere dancing girl of India, who are dedicated to a dancing life from birth.


A candy stripe is a thin vertical stripe in two contrasting colours, usually white and a pastel pink, blue or yellow. Candy stripes are for example the characteristic pattern used for seersucker fabric.


A candy cane stripe is traditionally a red and white stripe pattern in a diagonal direction, just like candy canes. They can consist of only two altering stripes in the same width, or of one wider red surrounded by two narrower red stripes on both sides on a white background. The first mentioned candy cane was according to the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 19th century.


The hickory stripe derives from the pattern of Hickory cloth, traditionally with thin vertical white stripes against an indigo blue ground.


A navy stripe pattern has horizontal stripes of blue and white, where the blue stripes are typically slightly narrower than the white. Navy stripes originated from the French coast in the beginning of the 19th century, when navy seamen were given a striped woven top bearing 21 horizontal stripes, one for each of Napoleon’s victories – as a uniform, that later turned into the official Breton shirt, and that later on was turned into a fashion icon by Coco Chanel.


A pinstripe pattern is a pattern of thin dashed lines, often used for clothing such as suits, jackets, pants and skirts. Some say that the first pinstripe suits were worn as bank uniforms with slightly different striping to identify employees for different banks. Pinstripe patterns can have one singe or two colours alternating, classically white and red pinstripes on a dark blue background.


Regency stripe patterns is a pattern style with origins in India and that became popular in Britain in the late 18th century. Its characteristics is a symmetric combination of a wide stripe in one colour, surrounded by two or more narrower stripes in a second colour. This style became popular in Europe with the Neo classic style emerging in late 18th century. Regency stripes are often used for wallpaper, upholstery and shirts.


About Sue Donnelly

Sue Donnelly FFSM, AICI CIP, FFIPI is a multi-award winning image professional. Known for pushing traditional boundaries, she loves to explore what really makes us feel ‘at home’ in our clothes. She combines mind, heart and intuition in her image training, to ensure identity, self-expression, intentions and lifestyle are in harmony.  A Past President, Events Director and Master Assessor of FIPI (Federation of Image Professionals International), she is the current VP Education AICI (Association of Image Consultants International), holder of Jane Segerstrom Award and Lead Trainer and Master Facilitator of Fashion Feng Shui®. Sue is also a certified coach, international speaker, author, appears regularly on TV and has written articles/styled photo shoots for magazines and newspapers. Her mantras are ‘Life evolves, style evolves’ and ‘One size does not fit all’.   

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