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Why stripes are shapely, sexy and transgressive

Why stripes are shapely, sexy and transgressive

Striped outfits enhance the contours of the human form. Matthew Sweet reads between the lines

Striped outfits enhance the contours of the human form. Matthew Sweet reads between the lines

Matthew Sweet | June/July 2020

There’s a theory about stripes. It involves sex workers, street entertainers and Satan, and was advanced by Michel Pastoureau, a French historian and heraldic symbologist, in “The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric” in 2001. Stripes, he asserts, have always been transgressive. The key players in his story are the 13th-century Carmelites who arrived in Paris from Palestine in two-tone cloaks, so offending decorum that Pope Boniface VIII banned all religious orders from slipping into anything stripy. Pastoureau is the chief – ok, possibly only – proponent of this theory. But as you examine these pages, and find yourself thinking about how stripes enhance the contours of the human form, and daydreaming, perhaps, of bathing costumes and tailored suits and those T-shirts worn by dockers and tarts in Jean Genet novels, then be assured that nobody will damn you for concluding that there is something to these speculations about their sexiness.
Matthew Sweet


The uniform Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1865
Franz Joseph I of Austria, dressing visibly to the right, was visible everywhere during his 68-year reign – all official institutions carried his martial portrait. As the years passed, his Habsburg features changed, the hairline receded and the mutton-chops embarked on their Winterreise. But the sash of the Military Order of Maria Theresa, its crimson-white-crimson stripes commuted from the national flag of Austria, stayed the same: lines of duty inscribed across his chest, blood red on the snowfield of his tunic.

That Riviera touch Sasha, 1924
Who’s winning at mixed doubles? Dancer and choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his costume designer Coco Chanel, who created a Cubist beach scene for “Le train bleu” (1924), a ballet about the inter-war Riviera. Chanel sometimes gets the credit for introducing Paris fashion to the horizontal stripe in her nautical collection of 1917. Undeservedly so – European aesthetics were already in love with clean geometries. They’re extensions of the lines in Kandinsky and the electric wires buzzing overhead, carrying the message of modernity.

Little Leaguers 1950s
As those who roll in mud will know, stripes hide the dirt. Legions of naughty 20th-century boys were sent out in barred tops with hints of sports fields, dockyards, even correctional institutes. These 1950s Little League baseball players are dressed for cheerful violence, with turn-ups that suggest hand-me-downs or thrift-store buys. Stripes aren’t always indicators of fashion. Did Dennis the Menace, the archetypal naughty boy of British comics, wear black-and-red stripes by choice? Sometimes you just can’t get the wool.

The blazer c.1928
These stripes are best admired from a distance. They shout at you; you shout back to encourage their wearers to victory. The blazing sportsman here is Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji, who played cricket for England in 1929-31 and chalked up over 15,000 runs in eight seasons – an achievement sensibly acknowledged outdoors, where the sound of celebration wouldn’t be drowned out by his jacket.

The pinstripe Reg Lancaster, 1967
Who wore it best? Sorry guys, wrong answer. The shoulder-to-ankle verticals of the pinstripe have their origins in the male world – one theory says Victorian sport, the other City of London banking – but let the record show that men were simply establishing the style in order to allow women to travesty it, then claim it for themselves. This model is swaggering in an Yves Saint Laurent suit, known as “Le Smoking”. The look is stolen from Marlene Dietrich, who stole it from the men who adored her. She never gave it back.

The marinière Cap d’Antibes, 1923
It’s been on quite a voyage, the marinière, aka the tricot rayé, aka the Breton top (so many stamps in its passport). The striped long-sleeved shirt was once standard issue for quartermasters in the French navy. Then the weekend yachtsmen and the Gatsbys adopted it. (This photograph shows Gerald and Sara Murphy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s originals for the Divers in “Tender is the Night”.) Right now its stripes are everywhere, particularly in cities and suburbs, where the sea seems like a dream.

Evening wear Paris, 1966
Two women, one Givenchy evening sheath in blue-and-white striped organza. Social disaster? Not when you’ve lived their lives. Facing front: Wallis Simpson, royal homewrecker. Coming astern: Aileen Plunket, Guinness heiress. Plunket had a penchant for disgusting practical jokes (she served bowls of fake vomit to dinner guests). Simpson let Hitler kiss her on the hand. Givenchy remained faithful to both – and this moment from a party in 1966 ran with many of his obituaries. Perhaps it was not a mistake, but a conscious act of tribute.

The djellaba Arnold Newman, 1974
Many 1960s figures loved Morocco. A few didn’t go just for the boys and the kif. Diana Vreeland, Vogue editor-in-chief, had eyes for the djellaba – the loose-fitting cotton robe worn across the Maghreb. She saw in the garment a freedom she could sell from her office on Seventh Avenue: “All float,” she enthused. “Nothing static – everything moves well, sits well.” One fact she chose not to communicate was that the djellaba was traditionally male dress, and the coloured stripes conveyed information about the marital status of the man inside.

The old school tie Cambridge, 1933
The British ruling classes use the old school tie as a subtle signifier of allegiances illegible to anyone without knowledge of the tribe. The stripes convey nostalgia, class solidarity, the ordinary corruptions of the privileged in-group. Guy Burgess’s neck carries more messages too. The British spy wore his Eton colours at the BBC, at his club, in Moscow and, doubtless, when asked what he was doing in a cubicle at the gents loos in Victoria station. (The gentlemanly answer: “re-reading ‘Middlemarch’.”)

Pyjamas Ian Dickson, 1974
Empire brought the striped pyjama West. In 1873 a Victorian journalist used them to go undercover as an Indian musician in London. Twenty years later, they’d gone native – sold first in lilac silk to fin de siècle gentlemen, later to everyone else. The British convinced themselves that they’d invented the things. Which is why Rod Stewart, sunk in a pair at a luxurious Kensington hotel, can use them to make a sheepish joke about his own status.