Updated: May 10, 2019
For me, fashion isn’t just about wearing clothes, it’s about understanding where the clothes and fabrics, patterns and design details come from. I love knowing that there are history and stories, lore and tradition behind the trends.
Stripes are generally synonymous with this time of year, and although stripes are great for all year round, the first half of the yearly fashion calendar is inundated with striped items of every sort, from runway to high street. In fact, stripes are so well known and reused, they have become a fashion wardrobe staple. And one stripe design stands out far more than the other: the classic Breton stripe.
This much worn, much-used navy blue and white horizontal stripe design is something of a clothing history icon. There’s unlikely to be a closet that doesn’t feature a stripy item of sorts, I also doubt many of us have been through our lives thus far without wearing a Breton stripe.
So, stripes. Where did they come from and why have they reached such fashion must-have status?
Firstly, we need to go back. Way back. To circa the 1200s AD. A group of Carmelite monks were thought to be the first to wear brown and white striped cloaks, which were apparently inspired by the prophet Elijah. Elijah supposedly disappeared on a chariot of fire into the sky, leaving behind a habit singed with brown stripes. The monks who followed Elijah were pretty recognisable, and once they settled in Paris from Palestine, they were given the nickname ‘les frères barrés’ or ‘barred brothers’. They weren’t exactly popular however, and this clear pattern on their cloaks made them a target of persecution. Over 25 years or so, they resisted orders from eleven successive popes to give up their cloaks, but finally succumbed to Pope Boniface VIII banning stripped clothing from all religious orders in 1295.
This theme of stripes and outcasts continued throughout the medieval time and middle ages. The uncouth, damned members of society were associated with wearing stripes; jesters, beggars, ‘women of the night’. Stripes were ludicrous, scandalous! They were a mark of the unwanted of society. This link, although not technically proven, remained in some form until the 1800s with the stark black and white striped uniforms of the prison inmate, reflecting the bars of the cell. We often associate this uniform with American prisoners of ‘ye olden days’. These stripes were also easily identifiable should the inmate escape. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the striped inmate garb was phased out, it’s mark of shame no longer being morally desirable.
Stripes came to mark the outsider, but they developed into more of a sign of a status quo breaker as time went on. Stripes were used in the American Revolution as a symbol of forward thinking and freedom fighting, and this idea continued within the French Revolution. Stripes made a statement, showing that people who used them as their identifiers were part of something different; a movement or change. It was Queen Victoria herself who helped pave way for stripes to be associated with the positive and the marine in a mainstream sense. Victoria dressed her son in a sailor suit during a Royal Yacht boarding event and changed the course of history for stripy popularity, as people flocked to follow the fashion of the Royals.
Stripes had begun to take a connotation of the ocean and sea work. A fashionable bathing suit at the time was often designed with navy and white stripes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the stripe fashion became mainstream again. During a visit to the French Riviera, Coco Chanel was inspired by the workers’ uniform. The French Navy had been using their classic navy and white striped shirt for a long time before Chanel saw it (since the 1850s), but as Coco liked the pattern so much, she started to include the now famous striped colour combo into her designs. In many ways, we still associate this design with the French today, Chanel just gave it the fashion spotlight.
In the mid-20th century, movie stars like Audrey Hepburn and James Dean were seen wearing striped shirts through the media, and fashion trends naturally followed what the celebrities of the day wore. Stripes became more commercial and spread out further into the fashion market.
Fashion houses and brands have taken stripes to represent them because they are memorable and bold. Think about Italian design giant Missoni – they adopted stripes as one of their key looks and it became one of their most recognisable patterns. Jean Paul Gaultier’s ‘Le Male’ is a classic and even if you don’t know the designer, you’d recognise the eye-catching blue stripes. And let’s not forget the world-famous Adidas – a simple three stripe design was all they needed to create a statement brand logo that is instantly identifiable worldwide. Stripes have helped create some classic and iconic imagery.
This season shows stripes still haven’t lost their style power. The likes of Philip Lim and JW Anderson sent models down the runway in new versions of stripes; you’ll see cross direction stripes throughout the high street this season. The greatest thing about stripes right now is the playfulness - clashing colour stripes, mixing candy stripes with primary colours, using wide stripes along thin stripes; it’s all go!
That brings us up to the here and now. Being an easy and repetitive pattern means that stripes are pretty much appropriate for everyone, especially in a design and colour scheme as classic and neutral as the Breton. The joy of stripes has become their versatility, their appeal to both a 5-year old boy or an 80-year old woman. It’s a pattern that can be adapted to many occasions and from day to night and on many different fabrics and styles. And plus, they are quite a bit of fun.
So, stripes, although starting with a slightly more tumultuous history, have become one of the most classic and easy to wear patterns of fashion history. Stripes are here to stay.