The Fashion Statement: Stripes Have a Checkered Past
Several years ago, designer Andrae Gonzalo (of Project Runway fame) sent me a terrific little book on the history of stripes called The Devil's Cloth. I fished out the book recently and inside the jacket found Gonzalo's personal note: "From one zebra to another. Now you're really ready for spring 2002!" Back then, I was reporting for Women's Wear Daily and I had been talking to Gonzalo-at that time a buyer for the American Rag boutique in Los Angeles-about the chicest look of the season: stripes.
Cut to fall 2009. Little has changed. From Christian Dior Haute Couture in Paris to New York It boy Prabal Gurung, designers continue to send stripes down the runway. Whether zebra or nautical, it seems there's always demand for the clean and crisp, yin-yang pattern. A classic.
So it might shock you, as it did me, to learn that striped cloth was once a controversial religious garment not unlike the burqa today. According to the book, a few striped-clad monks called the Carmelites moved from Palestine to Paris where they were ridiculed and jeered. They were accused of greed, hypocrisy and treachery and even seen as the henchmen for the devil and the Antichrist. All because of their stripes.
The scandal got so out of hand, a Pope stepped in to ban all monks from wearing striped habits. Here's the kicker: Some 19th Century scholars believe Western Europeans had such a fit because the cloaks–probably resembling something like striped djellabas–had Asian or Middle Eastern origins.
Gallery: The Fashion Statement: Stripes
Everywhere, stripes became synonymous with bad. Prostitutes, hoodlums and deviants were all forced to wear stripes. You know, the jailbird look.
Over time, disgust with stripes became fascination. Fascination became exotic. And exotic became sought after.
"The zebra is the most well-made and the most elegantly dressed; it has the figure and grace of the horse, the lightness of the deer and its coat, striped with black and white bands, arranged with so much regularity and symmetry, makes it seem as though nature used a ruler and compass to paint it," wrote George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in mid-1700s. This was no ordinary count. Buffon was referred to the Son of Enlightenment and a superstar.
Voila! Stripes became all the rage.
Even now, stripes are not for fashion wallflowers. You either love them or hate them. Slip into the Christian Dior number above and you're going to turn heads (particularly if you go the underwear route).
Last week, I wrote about the French couturiers' obsession with the burqa. If history is any predictor of the future, will the burqa ever shed its controversy and become just another way to dress....like stripes?