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UMd latest project is a series of made to order t-shirts exploring our search for a digital identity through the aesthetic of stripes. Olivia Lidbury explores the lineage of the stripe through fashion history.

There are not many styles that a two-year-old girl and a 35-year-old man can both wear - stripes are perhaps the only contender. The graphic and repetitive pattern, defined simply as ‘a long, narrow band or strip differing in colour or texture from the surface on either side of it’ is universal in its appeal.

The Breton top, the nautical-inspired blue and white stripes synonymous with French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, holds the cachet of being considered a perennial wardrobe staple. Other luxury design houses, such as Missoni and Paul Smith, have put their own unique and colourful twist on stripes, creating patterns so entwined with their visual identity that many of us can recognise these brands without seeing their names.

Stripes have the power to make a surface highly distinguishable, which when it comes to clothing, explains why the pattern wasn’t always held in such high regard. A black and white stripe was once the uniform of the detainee; once upon a time it was even a pattern which, incredulously, could have you killed.

Utah prisoners c. 1885, image from Wikipedia

A crime against fashion?

In Michel Pastoureau’s comprehensive book, The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes, the author details how in the Middle Ages, wearing stripes was a perilous act. He recounts how in 1310, a cobbler in northern France was condemned to death because, according to local archives, 'he had been caught in striped clothes.' At that time, striped clothing was considered 'demeaning, pejorative, or clearly diabolic' and was worn by social outcasts, such as prostitutes, jugglers, clowns and cripples. Pastoureau traces back to a group of Carmelite monks, who donned brown and white striped cloaks. Their dress was thought to be inspired by the prophet Eiljah, who supposedly vanished into the sky on a chariot of fire, leaving behind a habit singed with brown stripes. When the monks arrived in Paris from Palestine, their uniform saw them nicknamed les frères barrés or barred brothers, and they were assaulted wherever they went. They resisted 25 years of orders from eleven successive popes to give up their cloaks, but were forced to find an alternative when Pope Boniface VIII banned striped clothing from all religious orders in 1295.

Pastoureau was not able to prove a link, but bold stripes went on to become inmates’ prison uniform in the US in the 1800s. Horizontal stripes in black and white were adopted to signify the enclosure of the prison cell, and made its wearer easily identifiable should he (women prisoners were not given striped clothing) succeed in escaping. Many states in America began to abolish the graphic uniform early in the 20th century as its use as a badge of shame was considered undesirable.

Ahoy there! All hail the Breton, via Coco Chanel

The classic navy blue and white striped tees that we know today originate from the French coastal region of Brittany. The 1958 Act of France saw navy seamen in the area given a striped woven top bearing 21 horizontal stripes (one for each of Napoleon’s victories) as a uniform, known as a matelot or marinière. The garment was born out of functionality: the boat neckline allowed sailors to dress quickly and to spot an overboard shipmate (and firmly blew any prison-like connotations out of the water). 

The official Breton top, manufactured locally in wool and in cotton, was eventually adopted by many sailors across the region of northern France, and it was upon a visit to the coast that fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel came across it. The seamen’s attire inspired her to create a nautical-themed collection in 1917, which was stocked in her boutique in the wealthy holiday resort of Deauville in Normandy. Chanel favoured masculine silhouettes to empower her female clientele, and was pictured sporting one of her lose-fitting Breton tops tucked into a pair of wide-leg trousers. High society soon cottoned on and members of the upper class adopted these stripy tops under blazers.

Stripes on screen

By the mid-century, the Breton top became the uniform of the hipster, a sort of signifier of countercultural cool. Young creatives congregating around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood in Paris owned one, as did Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Their attire influenced the beatniks over in the United States - doubtless an easy way to tap into that French je ne sais quoi. The Breton then landed in Hollywood by way of motorcycle hooligan Marlon Brando in the 1953 film, The Wild OneA photograph of actress Jean Seberg, sporting a classic striped top and her famous pixie haircut on the set of The Mouse That Roared, made for an iconic image. Style muses Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot both bolstered the appeal of stripes and by the 1960s, they were de rigueur for artist Andy Warhol and his Factory entourage. Punk rock band The Ramones wore theirs under leather biker jackets in the 1970s. The Breton was never exclusive, but appealed to those who chose to make a subtle statement with their attire.

High fashion’s slice of stripes

Half a century after Coco Chanel put nautical stripes at the forefront of fashion, a handful of emerging designers added their own spin to the distinctive pattern. Italian fashion house Missoni is best known for its bold knitted pieces, with stripes and chevron patterns as its signature. This is owed to limitations imposed by the machinery that the company used, as late founder Ottavio Missoni revealed: 'with the first machines we could only make solid or stripe knitwear'. But this did the brand no harm: its striped dresses were a sell-out success and the family business caught the eye of American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in the 1970s. Meanwhile French designer Sonia Rykiel has been stripes down the catwalk since the 1960s and items adorned with boldly coloured stripes alternated with black continue to dominate the brand’s year-round collections.

Paul Smith and Jean Paul Gaultier are good examples of how stripes have seeped into a brand’s visual identity. The former’s composition of multicoloured, horizontal stripes are as recognisable as the company name itself, and have been splashed across everything from cufflinks to suit linings, and socks to a Mini car. Originally featured on a men’s shirt in 1997, the label’s graphic designer, Alan Aboud, was struck by the pattern and incorporated it across the brand’s corporate packaging in a move that was only meant as a temporary initiative.

Gaultier, dubbed the enfant terrible of French fashion, indulged his obsession with all things nautical and made the Breton a mainstay of his work. If he wasn’t photographed in a marinière then the models in the advertising campaigns for his fragrance, Le Male, could be relied to (the bust-shaped bottle of which is dressed in a stripy top by way of frosted printing). Gaultier was kitted out in stripes as a child, and shopped for them in flea markets as a teenager. 'I liked the graphic style', he said, having adapted the former French Navy uniform in many iterations over his 40-year career.

Today, stripes have earned their place as something far more solid than a wardrobe ‘must-have’: they are considered to be a foundation piece defying trends, age brackets and sexes. Breton tops in all their guises can be cheap and cheerful, or on the opposite end of the scale, investment-worthy and collectable. The French connotations are fading (unless paired with a neck scarf) and what remains is one of the most enduring and accessible patterns around.

Stripes have stood the test of time and adapted along the way. And now UMd are the next step in their evolution. With three stripe interactions launching over the next few weeks, you can make a set of stripes as unique as you are. Cross the line at umd.studio.

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