The Striped Atlas Of Civilization

The earliest examples of curiosity about and investigation into lines and shapes are found in western science. A sub-branch of semiology, phenomenology makes up the bulk of investigations of this kind, studies of colors, shapes, stripes, objects...

The history of stripes arises from their being strangely identified in medieval western mysticism with the mark of the outcast. As such, stripes represent everyone from people of other religions to the mentally ill, in short, all those excluded from, or cast out of, society. Taking on a more prominent role in 12th and 13th century folk literature and palace fiction, stripes became identified with groups such as treacherous knights, feudal despots, adulterous wives, disobedient children, disloyal brothers, cruel dwarfs and greedy knaves and housemaids, who were almost always represented in, or forced to wear, striped garments.

Rather than being perceived as a form of coercion, this choice took on iconographic significance as an expression of style. As exemplified in zebras, it even emerges as the representative of the devil on earth!  Western zoologists in the 16th and 17th centuries regarded this beautiful animal as dangerous, primitive, even evil, in other words, as Satan’s incarnation on earth, a label that unfortunately persisted into the early twentieth century.

By itself the stripe has no significance but rather derives its meaning in association with, or in opposition to, something else. Although a striped garment naturally acquires meaning from the identity of the person wearing it, it is inevitable that stripes should also entail the significance they acquired in history.  In other words, by making a person look tall and slim, a vertically striped dress or suit can also express differentness, a going against the grain.

Continuous, plain stripes have come down to our day as synonymous with a prohibition or interdiction of some sort. One of the best examples of this is on highways, where an unbroken stripe down the middle indicates a ‘No Passing Zone’. Similarly a diagonal line through an image draws attention to a prohibited activity - smoking, for example - or an area that is off-limits. While a straight line is the shortest distance between two points in mathematics, in semiology a line defined as ‘straight’ signifies rejection. Although the conclusion may seem a trifle forced, the ‘straight’ is that which is rejected! To expand on this a little, the ‘straight’ constitutes the grounds for the banning of what is banned. The striped uniforms worn by prisoners in the West set them apart from other people and indicate their status as social outcasts. Stripes have even found their correlative in the pages of Turkey’s social history as exemplified in the striped pyjamas worn by working class urban men, sometimes even at picnics!

The optical illusion created by vertical stripes is used to advantage by women. It is in many women’s interest that vertically striped garments make them look taller and slimmer. Even more interesting is the use of stripes on stockings and undergarments. But women’s interest in striped clothing is not simply a matter of aesthetic considerations, in other words of making a fashion statement. Since the 1950’s it has also been influential in creating the type of the working woman in the business world, a half-feminine, half-masculine creature defined as the harmless but ambitious and hard-working middle ranking female executive.

The resulting image, which represents both power and defiance, emphasizes the masculine side of stripes. Suits, often in the form of pantsuits with jackets with shoulder pads that make the shoulders look broader, convey an impression of hidden strength and power. Developing over time, the sociological counterparts of feminine stripes have made women more free when it comes to dress. Nevertheless, the stripes of rejection can’t be any more impressive than they are on the Turkish cartoon character Hopdediks (modeled on the French original, Obélix!). Obélix’s striped pants render him a comic figure while at the same time signifying unbridled power in defiance of the establishment. The stripes that appear masculine and innocuous on a woman are impressive yet defiant on Obélix.

Similarly, dark, pinstripe suits are emblematic of the mafia or ‘mob’, which appeared on the American scene during the Great Depression. These ‘heavies’, who look for ways to bypass life’s normal cycle, represent the desperado fringe of society. A cult film in American cinema, the Godfather trilogy examines this powerful, defiant sector that stands outside society by focusing on a unique screen character played by Al Pacino. The defiance of central authority embodied in the godfather concept is also expressed in the figure of Malcolm X, who symbolizes the U.S. black population and who, dressed in similar garb, rose up against the white man and the establishment in the same period. Another example of the same mentality that comes to mind are the striped prison uniforms of the Dalton Brothers. A symbol representing society’s rejects, how many other concepts is mankind going to use stripes to signify!