Menu Close

Jean Paul Gaultier and the true history of the fashion stripe

The stripe is the mark of the ordinary seaman, never of the officer. Jean Paul Gaultier, Lascar dress, Les Indes galantes (Romantic India) collection, haute couture, spring-summer 2000. © Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

The publicity material for The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, which opened last week at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), unsurprisingly came decked in stripes.

The blue and white bars of the Breton jersey, worn by French sailors since the mid-19th century and made fashionable by Coco Chanel at the end of the first world war, have dressed promotional films, merchandise, catalogues, and the figures of those invited to the opening.

So, what is the history of the stripe in fashion?

Pierre et Gilles, Portrait of Jean Paul Gaultier 1990, painted photograph, 112.0x92.0cm, private collection, Paris. © Pierre et Gilles/Rainer Torrado

The marinière is inseparably associated with Parisian Gaultier, who has repeatedly included it in his fashion collections over a 40-year career. At the same time, together with the beret and neckerchief, the sailor stripe goes shorthand for a style that is stereotypically, parodically French.

The horizontal bands remain the most vivid and playful example of a surface decoration more notable for its banality and ubiquity.

The stripe is seen everywhere from the pinstriped business suit, with its accompanying shirt and tie, to the pastel stripes of our pyjamas and bed linen, to the emblematic blazery of the school uniform and football strip.

We are seemingly at home with the contemporary stripe and its implications of rectitude, comfort, identity and energy.

The stripe as mark of the social outsider

It has not always been so. If the wearing of stripes seems a trivial matter, subject to the whims of fashion and the conventions of work and leisure, there was a time when to be striped was indeed to be barred, to be marked as socially marginalised or excluded.

Medieval art frequently depicts, and sumptuary laws (that attempt to regulate consumption) often required, the wearing of striped clothing by the criminal, crippled, and insane. It marks those plying dishonourable trades, such as the prostitute and butcher, and those whose employment entails a degree of disruptiveness, such as the minstrel and clown.

In painting and literature, and sometimes in heraldry, its presence is a marker of treachery, rebelliousness, and cruelty.

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) demonstration, women dressed in prison-stripe costumes, carrying chains, c1945. Kheel Center

All that may seem of another age. Yet the stripe has never quite shaken its earlier connotations of (in-)subordination. If the early modern period sees its gradual social acceptance, it remains primarily the livery of the lower classes and persists in the striped vest of the butler and uniform of the chambermaid. And it is from here, perhaps, that it makes its way out to sea.

For the stripe is the mark of the ordinary seaman, never of the officer.

Until recently, horizontal stripes paired with vertical bars signified the enclosure of the prison cell or the internment of the concentration camp, the memory of which seems recently to have eluded an international clothing label.

Gwen Stefani at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, New York. AAP/Dimitrios Kambouris/Fashion Wire Daily

We might conjecture that it was its association with the subjugated or disenfranchised that led to the adoption of the tricoloured stripe as symbol of rebellion and liberation during the revolutions in the United States and France.

Today we come in all stripes. The emblematic band of provenance and identity, of the coat of arms and national flag, attaches itself to the uniform. The sign of social liminality we bestow on children, while unconsciously acknowledging that an adult swathed in stripes would be, at best, an eccentric.

The deviant stripe of the demi-mondaine, bohemian, or scoundrel crossed the line into popular culture in the 1950s and 60s. And the upright stripe of the 1930s pinstripe suit, armour of the modern warrior, has never been able to free itself from ambivalence, for it is only the changing subtleties of contrast and width that separate the stripes of the Wall Street banker from those of the Hollywood gangster.

Finally, witness the recent appearance on our intimate apparel of the pastel stripe, unable to decide whether it aspires to the purity of white or the vivacity of colour.

The stripe as cultural marker

It is hazardous to offer an aesthetic or psychological explanation for the symbolism and ideology of the stripe.

Yet there are clear perceptual differences between the neutrality and inertia of the plain surface, the orderliness of the patterned surface, on which background and foreground are distinguishable, and the pulsation of the striped surface, where no hierarchy of planes is evident.

To follow its lines crossways is to be in perpetual transition. To follow them lengthways is to be in dynamic flight – the reason, perhaps, for their popularity in sportswear.

If the restlessness of the stripe is a sign of disorder, its regularity is the imposition of order. The comb, bookshelf, fence, barcode; all are means of ordering the disorderly. The stripe, in a profound sense, is the inscription of culture itself.

The motley tunic once marked the exclusion and reintegration of the medieval fringe-dweller. Is that now the lot of all of us?

The National Gallery of Victoria will host a series of public talks on the Colourful History of the Stripe on Saturdays October 25, November 1 and 8.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 175,100 academics and researchers from 4,818 institutions.

Register now