In my third year of college, I was in a costume class where we studied the play Something Wicked This Way Comes, a dark fantasy about three teenage boys and an exciting traveling circus-turned nightmare. My classmates and I were assigned to work on individual theoretical designs for each of the main characters. I was attempting the design for one of the circus leaders, and discussing a creative block with my professor. She suggested I borrow her copy of a book that she thought would be ‘very interesting to me.’ That book was The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes & Striped Fabric by Michel Pastoureau.“While today you might consider stripes to be an endlessly classic style—patriotic, even—the design has origins which are less than favorable.”The title alone was enough to spark my imagination immediately, though the contents are even more captivating. While it would have been nice to have the renderings included in this article I’m almost grateful that I lost them a couple years ago so that I could save myself from public humiliation now—there’s a reason I’m writing now instead of designing. Nevertheless, that experience was the beginning of my true fascination with the pattern which has often been associated with joy on the surface, though reveals eerie truths when you look closer.
Stripes are one of the first examples of woven textiles which continue to be seen in the fashion industry throughout history. While today you might consider stripes to be an endlessly classic style—patriotic, even—the design has origins which are less than favorable. In the middle ages, striped clothing began to be a sign of an outcast or someone who needed to be contained:“Servants and court jesters wore striped cloth; so did prostitutes, madmen, and criminals, not voluntarily but by official orders. The bold, broad, contrasting stripes of their garments seemed to stand for neither-this-nor-that, ambivalence, ambiguity, and a realm of unclear and violated boundaries.” -John Major on LoveToKnowhis bold pattern is hard to ignore and therefore used to be linked to individuals who did not want to play by social rules. As history has taught us, time and time again, society becomes incredibly fearful of those who reject the conventional so this aversion to stripes only grew into the 13th century, when Europe’s sumptuary laws made it a legal obligation for certain types of citizens to wear the style.