Ah, the summer stripe. It’s amazing how this simple pattern (namely with a white background) has the power to transport a person to a beach club in Positano or the patio of a Mizner mansion in Palm Beach in an instant. The summer stripe is trending right now in our post-pandemic society as the desire for travel, luxury, and nostalgia has given way to things like
the “Coastal Grandmother” aesthetic and brought Riviera chic to practically every runway this past season.
“Whenever and wherever you go on holiday, stripes are just part of the picture—they are the poster pattern for escapes, the Mediterranean and beyond,” says Seb Bishop, CEO and creative director of Summerill & Bishop, which just launched the swoon-worthy, stripe-laden S&Beach Collection. “Stripes are an enduring print, not limited by time or trend. They look as good today as they will in five, 10, or 15 years’ time, so for anyone looking to inject pattern and personality into their home, stripes are a no-brainer.”
While we may associate stripes with mid-century Mediterranean beach clubs, vintage J.Crew catalogs, and the effortlessly chic French woman’s uniform, stripes have not always been held in such high esteem. In fact, historically, stripes were only worn by the riffraff, guilty, and “irredeemable.”
Textiles were powerful visual distinguishers between clans, classes, and other societal roles during the late Middle Ages, according to Michel Pastoreau, professor of medieval history, Western symbology expert, and author of The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes. He writes that during the 13th through 15th centuries, stripes were exclusively worn by inmates, court jesters, musicians (who were not associated with fame and fortune back then), prostitutes, and other people of low reputation. Stripes are symbolic in the visual arts and in literature during this time, as they were often used to endow adulterous wives, disgraced knights, and even the devil himself in paintings and stories.
“...[T]exts are not rare, which, in the course of a sentence or a paragraph, make it clear how degrading it is in the medieval Western world to wear striped clothes,” writes Pastoreau.
Eventually, the stripe began to evolve from the “diabolic to the domestic,” as Pastoreau writes. The pattern became part of the uniform of servants and enslaved people across Western Europe and particularly of enslaved African men in the courts of Northern Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Ironically, the Milanese aristocracy, as well as the Venetians, also began donning stripes during this time, primarily on their sleeves and breeches.
The Bubonic Plague, also known as “The Black Death,” devastated Europe, eliminating nearly half of the European population, according to some estimates, though a recent study shows it was likely more prevalent in some countries than others. Regardless, this outcome meant many of its survivors came into great wealth, due to obtaining multiple inheritances all at once or within a short period of time.
Many fashion historians attribute this surge in financial resources to the birth of tailoring. More people could now afford luxury goods, so the demand for alterations and attention-grabbing clothing was on the rise, according to NSS Magazine. Some sources say that the emergence from this devastating plague led to the dawn of Italian luxury.
Part of this increased desire for greater ornamentation is likely what led the Milanese and Venetian aristocracy to begin donning stripes in the mid-14th century as a symbol of their grand return to excess and freedom (you can now feel justified by your pandemic purchase of AYR’s The Deep End shirt in five colorways). Whether it was merely a cheeky (and possibly cruel) play on rebelliousness and social status or simply a desire to be avant garde and stand out amongst a growing middle class, this emergence from the plague not only led to the Italian Renaissance, but a renaissance of stripes.
The 16th through 18th centuries saw not only the cementing of the “aristocratic” stripe, but also the popularization of the vertical stripe, also seen as a symbol of wealth and privilege. Pastoreau says that the stripe began to flourish in fashion during Romanticism, a time of passion and eschewing restraint, which is likely why this bold pattern fared well. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the stripe was busy as a key symbol of equally passionate American revolutionaries.
The earliest iterations of the American Flag solely featured stripes, and the pattern represented liberty and new ideas to the founding fathers and their followers. Americanophiles in France (yes, there once was such a thing) also began wearing them, and stripes, too, became a prominent symbol of the country’s own revolution soon after. The popularization of stripes spread like wildfire between the countries that were also at odds with England. They saw the stripe as a protest against its tyranny, and aspiring tastemakers wanted to follow suit with whatever the French felt was en vogue.
Beyond fashion, a major revelation emerged from the literal democratization of stripes. Those with an eye for design began to realize that the vertical stripe had the ability to increase volume and make a room feel larger than it was, while the horizontal stripe had the power to make a space feel more intimate. Designer, author, and stripes aficionado Mark D. Sikes says one of his all-time favorite interiors is the stripe-swathed Tent Room at the Charlottenhof Palace, which was built as a summer residence for the Prussian Crown Prince (later King Friedrich Wilhelm IV) in 1825, of which legendary German architect and painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel was the designer.
“Everything is in the same stripe and there’s something about that tented fabric application that we still love to use in interiors today,” says Sikes. “It feels soft, romantic, and enclosed from the rest of the home.” Soon, another iconic royal began a new revolution of stripes, sparking the trend of sailor’s dress for the everyday person.
Browse the internet, and you’ll find several people attributed to the popularization of sailor stripes (namely, Coco Chanel after debuting a sailor-themed collection in 1917), but Royal Museum Greenwich attributes Queen Victoria to the rise of nautical fashion. In 1846, the queen had a sailor suit made for her son, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, to be worn on the royal yacht as a surprise for her husband. Prince Albert loved the costume so much that he had a portrait of the boy commissioned in it. Naturally, it didn’t take long for the sailor chic look to take hold amongst upper class Brits.
Speaking of chic, the French also played a role in expanding the reputation of the stripe. Twelve years after Prince Edward Albert donned his sailor’s outfit, a horizontal striped shirt became part of the official French naval seaman’s uniform. The shirt featured 21 stripes, one for each of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victories, and is a precursor to the orange safety vest we see on construction crews, as the stripes helped crew easily locate anyone who fell overboard. This was the earliest form of the marinère, or Breton stripe top, that is a staple of French, British, and American closets to this day.
Seaside resort towns were exploding onto the scene in Western Europe during this era, and Pastoreau writes that as early as 1858, French painter Eugène Boudin used stripes to convey leisure time on the seashore (shown below), covering everything from swimsuits to parasols to lounge chairs in them. Nautical stripes were used in hospitality design first on the Southwestern coast of France, a playground for British and Russian royalty looking to escape bad weather, and later, in Britain’s and Belgium’s burgeoning seaside destinations.
“On the eve of World War I, there is no longer a beach in temperate Europe that hasn’t become a veritable theater for stripes,” writes Pastoreau, cementing the fact that Coco Chanel’s nautical-inspired collection she presented three years into the war was not as trendsetting as many believe.
The infamous “Lost Generation” began taking shape after “The War to End All Wars” came to an end and Prohibition reigned supreme. Gerald and Sara Murphy, an American couple, are not only attributed with making the move to Paris très chic in the 1920s, but they are also believed to have globalized the now-immortal Breton stripe top, or marinère. They also helped transform the Cote d’Azur into a summertime destination.
The couple was vacationing at Cole Porter’s home on the French Riviera when they became smitten with a striped top on a white background that some of the locals were sporting. Gerald purchased a swath of these marinère tops and brought them back to the villa to share with the other guests (including F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Parker). Needless to say, the sailor stripe top became an instant hit.
Meanwhile, back home in thepassè U.S. of A., the middle class was growing richer and the American mafia was on the rise. Brooks Brothers was popularizing this burgeoning “jetset” look, modeling styles after the private school grad ensembles of Fizgerald and the gang, who were donning narrow and more refined stripes to the mobster’s wide, ostentatious stripes (the latter of which have inspired many a Halloween costume). Both were rich, but one group was socially accepted and envied while the other was regarded as scum. Akin to the Middle Ages, stripes reclaimed their power as a determiner of clan, class, and societal role, this time in a different way.
“A vulgar suit with wide stripes is enough to collapse the fragile barrier that separates the nation’s elected representatives from the dangerous mafioso,” writes Pastoreau about the pattern’s power during this decade. Ironically enough, many famous mobsters and businessmen traded one stripe for another in prison, most notably Al Capone who was notorious for striped suits and died in a different kind of one at Alcatraz.
Whether worn as a symbol of rebellion or Riviera revelry (or possibly both), the stripe continued to explode onto runways and found its way into the closets of the rich and famous. Many of the mid-century’s most iconic faces began appearing in striped clothing in films, such as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and James Dean, while society-bending creatives such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol were also sporting them. Sophia Loren, Jackie O., and other members of the upper echelons of taste-making looked as fabulous and privileged wrapped in a striped towel as they did in a caftan when photographed at Mediterranean beach clubs and oceanfront estates on the East Coast.
Italian designers like Pucci and Missoni also began using the stripe in new ways during the 1960s, leading to the development of the latter’s signature print that has been immortalized. A young salesman for a tie company, Ralph Lauren, launched a tie collection under the name “Polo” in 1967, and perpetuated the East Coast Elite aesthetic in his designs, which would later be deemed “preppy” by Ali McGraw (a famous devotee of the style) in the 1970 film, “Love Story.”
After a decade of decreasing interest in stripes French designer Jean-Paul Gautier sought to renew the zest for them in the ’80s with his signature sailor shirt uniform and use of the stripe as a medium to transcend gender, age, and social status in his creations. This was also a decade of wealth in America and though the stripe had long gone global, it remained a symbol of seaside glamour once only enjoyed by European aristocracy and American Ivy League alumni that brands like Ralph Lauren and J.Crew continued to successfully emulate. Today, for what seems like the first time in several decades, this pattern continues to remain a representation of wealth and timelessness—a far cry from its earliest days and a celebration of our world’s return to travel, leisure, and sport.
“Stripes are a seasonless staple of men’s and women’s wardrobes and they don’t have to be particular to a certain age group—few things are universally loved in that way,” says Sikes, who is famous for working with the pattern in his interiors. “Stripes are a part of our brand DNA and one of our signatures mostly because they’re classic, easy to use, and so universally loved.”
Sikes says he’s unashamed about using stripes everywhere, as the pattern is great for making spaces feel cozy. He says a stripe works well as a geometric that will balance out a floral when mixed with solids, other geometric patterns, or the same stripe all over the room, as shown in his designs for The Colony Hotel’s Villa Aralia. He says there’s something visually striking about “the power of one,” particularly when that one is a stripe.
Bishop’s advice for decorating with stripes at home involves using his British design sensibility to let the stripe shine without extra bells and whistles while keeping colors tonal or complementary—tablescapes included. Some favorite stripe color combos include green and pink as well as yellow and blue.
“Clashing colors will feel distracting and chaotic, which is not what the table should be about,” he says. “Be sure to use complementing colors throughout your table setting to maintain a sense of balance and harmony.” He also notes that stripes tend to exacerbate Bishop’s penchant for neatness, and everything lines up nicely when stripes are used on the table, which is perfect for achieving brilliant symmetry.
Naturally, Sikes also loves to use a stripe in his outdoor rooms and finds it lends a chic, timeless, and breezy seaside feel to any backyard—whether it’s overlooking the Mediterranean Sea or the Manhattan skyline.
“A stripe is an amazing addition to your outdoor space, whether it’s an awning, outdoor fabric, or pool chaises,” he says. “Stripes always feel appropriate there and always work.”