In the 19th century, French sailors started wearing distinctive striped tops called marinières so they would be easy to spot should they fall overboard. Today, stripes remain just as attention-getting, even under circumstances considerably less dire. In the current sea of trendy crop tops, oversized ruffles and floral overload, a person wearing stripes immediately catches the eye. But as visually assertive as stripes can be, they are also the essence of simplicity, a tried and true standard, the fashion equivalent of a line drawing.
"That duality is the brilliance of it," designer Julia Leach says, referring to the striped T-shirt. In 2011, she launched her apparel and accessories company, Chance, around the iconic item. "It's really reductive and elementary and pure and then you flip the coin over and you have rock stars and royalty and ingenues and preps and punks [sporting it] – everybody wears a striped shirt in a different way."
Leach, the former creative director at Kate Spade, owns approximately 100 striped shirts of her own and, since founding Chance, has expanded its offerings to include other seasideinspired items, including beach towels, espadrilles and sun hats, each piece born of what she calls "the paper clip of personal style."
As this type of slavish devotion suggests, stripes never completely disappear from season to season, although this one is especially rife with them. Nearly every look sent down Marc Jacobs's and Tommy Hilfiger's catwalks featured stripes – horizontal, vertical, zigzag, athletic – many of them head to toe. (Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana and Jonathan Saunders also played with them.)
"Stripes are elegant, understated and will always be a classic in a woman's wardrobe," Hilfiger says via e-mail. "Stripes have always been part of the preppy style vernacular. This season, we went back to iconic striped styles and reinvented them with nautical motifs such as ropes, dots and chevron accents."
Indeed, stripes are as versatile as they are timeless, another source of their appeal. People are in fact drawn to the stripe, which cannot function without its two opposing sides, because it represents ambiguity and ambivalence, Michel Pastoureau writes in The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes. "The stripe always plays a trompe l'oeil role. It shows and it hides at the same time," he notes.
Long before stripes were revered, however, they were feared, Pastoureau points out. In medieval Europe, he writes, those who were seen or depicted in striped clothing were often outcasts (heretics, clowns, jugglers, prostitutes) or traitors (Judas, Cain, the disloyal knight of the Round Table). In a nutshell, the wearers of stripes disturbed order and were therefore considered evil.
"One reason why stripes were thought to be subversive or dangerous is the fact that some stripes create optical illusions," says Daniel James Cole, an adjunct assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "And the optical illusions – a strobe sort of effect you can get from equally spaced stripes – could have been associated with demonic presence, especially in a society that was very religious and didn't have the scientific knowledge of what was going on."
Over the years, of course, stripes acquired new, if no less edgy, connotations. The otherness with which they were associated negatively during the Middle Ages has become a worthier attribute in today's world, "which [has turned] 'variety' into a positive value instead, connoting youth, cheerfulness, tolerance, an inquisitive mind," Pastoureau writes. In the modern age, stripe-wearing icons such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Seberg, James Dean, Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol were all complicated outsiders, but ones who also became insiders in an exclusive club that everyone wanted to be part of. The most significant modern figure when it comes to the popularizing of stripes is undoubtedly Coco Chanel, credited with successfully transposing Breton-top stripes from the open sea to the once-scornful shore, from the sphere of the humble seaman to that of the aristocratic, from the domain of men to the world of women.
"Chanel was a complicated person, without question, but one of her gifts was the foresight to spot aspects of the everyday masculine wardrobe and to luxuriantly interpret them as sumptuous women's wear," says Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of Vogue On: Coco Chanel. "This is the case with the cardigan sweater and the tweed jacket as well as the striped top."
A more recent advocate of borrowing fashion from the boys, J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, probably does stripes better than anyone else today. When she was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010, Lyons not only got called out by the mighty O for wearing the same striped shirt she had previously been seen in, but was, in the same sentence, praised for wearing said striped shirt with sequin pants.
On this or any other occasion, one could never say that Lyons blends in with the crowd. Like stripes, however, she always straddles chic and simple, creating a perfect whole and achieving a fashion balance.
Perhaps there is no better role model for this spring's salute to stripes than Beyoncé on the cover of British Vogue's May issue. Never one to be overlooked, Queen B makes the trend her own in a figure-hugging Jonathan Saunders sequin skirt paired with a striped cropped top. Talk about eye-catching.