Life for life,
eye for eye,
tooth for tooth,
hand for hand,
foot for foot,
burn for burn,
wound for wound,
stripe for stripe.
There was a time in my life — a period of approximately three years (1999-2002 A.D.) — when I thought a lot about stripes. I was a copywriter for the J.Crew mail-order catalog, for men’s casualwear and women’s swimsuits, when I discovered the difference between an Oxford stripe and a rugby stripe, “tipping” versus “ticking,” the benefits of color-blocking, and the fashion DON’Ts for diagonals. When I landed a job at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, back when working there seemed like a Good Thing, I thought I had learned — perhaps even earned — my stripes. But the language of clothing didn’t wear well in the world of home furnishings, and so I stumbled. Awning stripes, banner stripes, ombré stripes, sailor’s stripes, tailor’s plaid, tartan plaid, zig-zag, window-pane, rick-rack… The patterns were dizzying, the pattern-names painfully particular. Who knew that a series of straight lines could be so god-damned drawn-out?
The Devil, that’s who.
(And no, that does not mean Martha.)
Turns out that the history of the stripe is as colorful as Satan’s own handiwork. From prisoners’ uniforms to seersucker suits, the court jester to the ringside referee, St. Joseph’s breeches to Pablo Picasso’s tee, the stripe has always made a bold statement. But the boundary that separates the “good” stripe from the “evil” stripe is often blurred — and, like most of the world’s great diametrical dilemmas, the border lines lay buried and burned in scripture.
The stripe first made its mark during the Christian Middle Ages, when literature and iconography endowed many a man with a two-toned garment. These characters — and caricatures — all “disturb[ed] or pervert[ed] the established order,” explains Michel Pastoureau in The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes & Striped Fabric, a fascinating book that chronicles the semiotic history of stripes. “They all ha[d] more of less to do with the devil.” Who were these unfashionable offenders? The Jew, of course, and his friends the prostitute, the leper, the hangman, and the disloyal knight of the Round Table. And why were they assigned the stripe? Because these individuals “transgressed the social order, like a stripe transgresses the chromatic order of dress.”
That could be one reason why the Carmelite brothers caused such a stir when they arrived in France during the thirteenth century. Saint Louis brought the ascetic, mendicant monks of Mount Carmel back with him after his pilgrimage to Palestine, to ensure their safe passage. Instead, the Carmelites were greeted with skepticism and disdain. They were ridiculed, alienated, stoned — all because they wore striped cloaks, a practice that clearly violated an order outlined in the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus: You will not wear upon yourself a garment made of two different kinds of materials. Heaven help them! How could the poor souls have done something so subversive?
One explanation goes like this: The brown-and-white striped cloak of the Carmelite order was intended to replicate, thus honor, the one worn by the prophet Elijah, Carmel’s mythic founder. Pastoreau elaborates:
Carried off to the sky by a chariot of fire, [Elijah] supposedly threw his great white cloak to his disciple, Elisha, and it was said to have retained, in the form of brown stripes, the burned traces of his passage through the flames.
Still, the striped cloak was an unwelcome accessory to the haute couture of the time. Suffice it to say, the Carmelites were treated far worse than any English-speaking tourist in Paris today. Les frères barrés — the “barred brothers,” as they were dubbed — eventually received a decree from Pope Alexander IV to abandon their stripes. The monks had a long, solid-brown future ahead.
In lay society, meantime, the stripe would continue to be used as a tool for condemnation (insert transgressor here), a testament to the prohibition and impediment associated with the Carmelites. Here, we find what Pastoureau calls the “obstacle stripe,” an ignominious sign, “a barrier, a gate. . . a filter that [offers] protection from evil spirits and diabolic creatures.” A madman behind a coat of stripes was to be watched over, for fear of infection. Similarly, a set of vertical-striped pajamas would guard us against devilish interventions during the night, and a pair of horizontal-striped stockings on a woman’s bare leg could immediately identify her as one of Eve’s seductive kin. Sailors in nautical stripes, ahoy!
But the ideology of the stripe was bound to change along with the changes taking place in the Western world. As Western society became more secularized, and revolution more prevalent, the stripe served as the perfect symbol for opposition to the social, political, and/or artistic norm. “It’s a matter of creating a distance,” writes Pastoureau. Wearing a striped outfit makes one “subject to a separate regime.” So you want to storm the Bastille and overthrow the French government? Wear a uniform of stripes to represent freedom from oppression! Want to break out of the prison that is British rule in colonial America? Dare to put them to wear! It’s easy to see how the stripe literally became a banner for individuality and solidarity. For the stripe unites the figure with its substance, the finite with the infinite; it warns, provokes, and equalizes.
After all, God’s words of monochromatic modesty can only go so far. Just one look at the J.Crew catalog proves it: We are a people made of many stripes. And everyone — indiscriminate of race, gender, or creed — is entitled to his or her own colorwave, bandwidth, and weave. And that, as Martha would say, makes the stripe a very Good Thing indeed.
Elizabeth Frankenberger wrote a musical about Anne Frank when she was in elementary school in Andover, Mass. She is now a NYC-based SJF whose work recently appeared in Before and After: Stories from New York.