When we think of French iconic objects, the blue and white stripes of a Breton shirt or marinière, immediately come to mind. From the French Navy’s uniform to the humble holiday shirt, and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s collections, the striped jersey seems to be in the wardrobe of every French person or Francophile! It is true that, in fashion, the eye seeks out a striped garment over a plain one. However, the stripe has not always had good press!

The Stripe in the Middle Ages

Indeed, in the Bible the stripe is the devil’s cloth: “Thou shalt not sow thy field with seed of two sorts”. According to Michel Pastoureau, an expert in Western symbology, the stripe is “the discriminatory mark par excellence, the one that is most visible and that underlines with the most force the transgression […] of the social order”. In the early Middle Ages, laws established that striped clothing should be imposed on bastards, serfs, convicts. It was then extended to all those who were outcast, either because of a conviction (forgers, false traders, perjurers, criminals), or because of an infirmity (lepers, simpletons, lunatics), or because they exercised an infamous profession (jugglers, prostitutes, executioners), or because they were not or no longer Christian (Muslims, Jews, heretics). All these individuals transgressed the social order, as the stripe transgresses the chromatic order. Similarly, spotted or striped animals attracted suspicion: it was said that horses lacking plain coats devalue those who ride them.

The stripe’s rise in popularity

Since the Renaissance, however, though remaining a strong social marker, the stripe gradually loses its diabolical connotation. It is used to distinguish all domestic subordinate functions (for example the caricatural striped vest of the butler) and military (uniform). At the same time, a vertical “aristocratic stripe” developed, which was found on the sleeves and shoes of young Italian noblemen or kings such as Henry VIII. Similarly, the zebra has benefited from the progressive revaluation of the stripe.

The Revolutionary stripe

According to Pastoureau, the Revolution constituted a turning point in the history of the stripes. The stripe was indeed prized by American revolutionaries and became the symbol of freedom and revolution. We can still observe its resonance today as attested by the flag with the thirteen red and white stripes – the 13 colonies of America insurging against the British crown. Our French revolutionaries also borrowed this motif, a patriotic sign par excellence, and used it in all the emblems of the Revolution.

Stripes of the 19th Century

Then a new meaning emerged for stripes: the hygienic stripe. While it had been inconceivable in Western civilisations to wear a body linen other than ecru or white, for reasons of both modesty and purity, changes appeared around 1860 in Anglo-Saxon countries. Colour began to emerge (for body linen, toiletries and later sheets) through the stripes. This hygienic stripe, which purifies the color while brightening the white, has of course nothing to do with the vulgar and negative stripe inherited from the Middle Ages. Similarly, under the impulse of Queen Victoria who dressed her son Edward, the Prince of Wales, in a sailor suit, the stripes were adopted for children. Rapidly all aristocratic and middle-class families in Europe fell in love with the striped knitting.

The stripe today

A rhythmic, dynamic motif, stripes became more and more democratic. The French striped jersey also inspired leading fashion designers such as Coco Chanel. Adopted by intellectuals and artists, such as Picasso, the Breton shirt gives a sense of Frenchness – attention-catching, freedom, and fun!

Still curious?

If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the French striped shirt why not pick up a copy of Michel Pastoureau’s The Devil’s Cloth. A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric?

To hear Prof Véronqiue Duché discuss other French cultural clichés book a ticket to Les Lumières bleu.

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