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The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes


"The medieval eye found any surface in which a background could not be distinguished from a foreground disturbing. Thus striped clothing was relegated to those on the margins or outside the social order - jugglers and prostitutes, for example - and in medieval paintings the devil himself is often depicted wearing stripes. The West has long continued to dress its slaves and servants, its crew members and convicts in stripes." But in the last centuries, stripes have also taken on new, positive meanings, connoting freedom, youth, playfulness, and
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"The medieval eye found any surface in which a background could not be distinguished from a foreground disturbing. Thus striped clothing was relegated to those on the margins or outside the social order - jugglers and prostitutes, for example - and in medieval paintings the devil himself is often depicted wearing stripes. The West has long continued to dress its slaves and servants, its crew members and convicts in stripes." But in the last centuries, stripes have also taken on new, positive meanings, connoting freedom, youth, playfulness, and pleasure. Witness the revolutionary stripes on the French and United States flags. In a wide-ranging discussion that touches on zebras, gangsters, awnings, and pajamas, augmented by illustrative plates, the author shows us how stripes have become chic, and even, in the case of bankers' pinstripes, a symbol of taste and status.

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Editorial Reviews

Angeline Goreau
The Devil's Cloth gets to the heart of matters like the way we perceive color and pattern, and speculates interestingly on whether these perceptions derive from nature or nurture. As with other histories that sift the past to confirm an observation or theory, there is much to debate here.
New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Convinced that "clothing is always the bearer of important meanings," Sorbonne paleographer/archivist Pastoureau here explores hitherto uncharted territory. In this intriguing little book, he traces the negative connotation related to stripes in cloth and clothing in Western societies as evidenced by documents and illustrations from the Middle Ages until today. He begins with the Carmelites' scandalous use later banned of striped monks' habits in the 13th century and gives numerous examples of striped clothing "marking" marginalized members of society: prostitutes, mimes, domestic servants, bankers, criminals, and, sadly, concentration camp inmates. He admits that the use of stripes on coats of arms is not pejorative and that stripes have been used successfully in modern fashions. The book raises as many questions as it answers and points to further research. The examples given are from French history and culture and may be unfamiliar to most American readers, making this book suitable for academic collections only. Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker, Western Kentucky Univ. Libs., Bowling Green Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A specialist in medieval heraldry, Pastoureau (history of western symbols, Ecole Pratique des Hautes <'E>tudes, Sorbonne) began noticing a long time ago that in medieval documents, figures wearing striped clothes were, in one way or another, negative figures. He starts his account with the 13th century, chronicles the shift from horizontal to vertical and back between the 16th and 19th, and brings the story up through the 20th. was published in 1991 by Editions du Seuil. The translation is by poet and author Jody Gladding Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher
The New York Times Book Review Imaginative...this playful but learned book will doubtless have an influence.

Esquire An oddball and charming little biography of a very devious pattern.

The New York Times Reading about the epic implications of feel like a child gleefully taking apart a toy, examining its small components one by one, then putting it back together.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781422352281
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 7/28/2006
  • Pages: 128

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Order and Disorder of the Stripe

"Cet été, osez le chic des rayures" [This summer, dare to be stylish in stripes]. In this somewhat flashy slogan displayed widely on the walls of the Paris metro in an advertising campaign several months ago, all the words are important. But the one which, it seems to me, carries the most weight is the verb, oser, dare. To wear stripes, to present oneself dressed in striped clothing — if we believe the slogan — is neither neutral nor natural. To do so, you must display a certain audacity, overcome different ideas of propriety, not be afraid to show off. But the one who dares is rewarded: he attains chic, style, that is, the elegant distinction of individuals who are free, at ease, refined. As is so often the case in our times, when any social code is capable of reversing itself, when any code, to function properly, is even required to reverse itself, what originally constituted a handicap or a liability ends up becoming an asset.

For the historian, this is food for thought. There's a great temptation to pass over the centuries and establish a link between the supposed boldness of contemporary stripes and the frequent scandals they prompted throughout the Middle Ages. In the long run, the stripe problem certainly exists, and clothes provide the most visible medium for it.

In the medieval Western world, there are a great number of individuals — real or imaginary — whom society, literature, and iconography endow with striped clothing. In one way or another, they are all outcasts or reprobates, from the Jew and the heretic to the clown and the juggler, and including not only the leper, the hangman, and the prostitute but also the disloyal knight of the Round Table, the madman of the Book of Psalms, and the character of Judas. They all disturb or pervert the established order; they all have more or less to do with the devil. Nonetheless, if it isn't very difficult to draw up a list of all those transgressors in striped clothing, it is harder to understand why such garments were chosen to designate their negative status. All the more so because there's nothing circumstantial or esoteric in this practice. On the contrary, beginning from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, abundant documentation in all areas emphasizes the demeaning, pejorative, or clearly diabolic quality of striped dress.

Is this a cultural issue, the Christian Middle Ages having inherited earlier value systems and believing they found in the scriptures a justification for condemning striped clothes? Actually, among other moral or cultural prescriptions forbidding practices of mixing, the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus proclaims in verse 19: Veste, quae ex duobus texta est, non indueris [You will not wear upon yourself a garment that is made of two...]. Like the Septuagintal Greek translation, the Vulgate Latin text is not very explicit here. After duobus, we might expect a noun specifying the nature of what one is forbidden to combine with and on one's clothes. Are we to understand by this (as the word texta and many other passages in the Old Testament invite us to do): "You will not wear upon yourself a garment made of two different kinds textiles," that is, woven from wool (animal) and linen (vegetable)?1 Or rather, are we to make the noun coloribus follow the adjective duobus, and understand it as "You will not wear upon yourself a garment made of two colors"? Modern translations of the Bible have retained the first solution, remaining faithful to the Hebrew text, but medieval exegetes and prelates have sometimes preferred the second and interpreted this as a ban on ornamentation and colors when it was only a question of fibers and cloth.

However, perhaps it isn't a matter (or only a matter) of a scriptural problem, but of a visual problem? People in the Middle Ages seemed to feel an aversion for all surface structures which, because they did not clearly distinguish the figure from the background, troubled the spectator's view. The medieval eye was particularly attentive to reading by levels. Any image, any surface appeared to be built of layers, that is, cut out like raised pastry. An image was created by superimposing successive levels, and, to read it well, it was necessary — contrary to our modern habits — to begin with the bottom level and, passing through all the intermediary layers, end with the top one. Now, with stripes, such a reading is no longer possible. There is not a level below and a level above, a background color and a figure color. One and only one bichrome level exists, divided into an even number of stripes of alternating colors. With the stripe — as with the check, another pattern the medieval sensibility finds suspect — the structure is the figure. Is that where the scandal originates?

This book hopes to answer these various questions. But, in attempting to do so, it will not confine itself to the medieval period or to clothing. On the contrary, extending the history of stripes and striped cloth up to the end of our twentieth century, it sets out to show how, without in any way renouncing earlier uses and codes, each period has produced new ones, thereby bringing about an ever wider diversification in the stripe's physical and symbolic universe. Thus the Renaissance and the romantic periods expanded the uses of "good" stripes (signs of celebrations, exoticism, or freedom) without eliminating the bad ones at all. And the contemporary period has very much made itself the receptacle of all these practices and all the earlier codes, since coexisting within it are stripes that remain diabolic (those by which prisoners in the death camps were ignominiously marked) or dangerous (those used for traffic signs and signals, for example), and others that, over time, have become hygienic (those on sheets and underwear), playful (those used for children's things), athletic (those used for leisure and sports clothes), or emblematic (those on uniforms, insignia, and flags).

The medieval stripe was the cause of disorder and transgression. The modern and contemporary stripe has progressively transformed into a tool for setting things in order. But if it organizes the world and society, the stripe itself seems to remain unwilling to serve any organization too rigorous or too limited. Not only can it function through any medium, but it can be its own medium and, in doing so, open out into the exponential and the imperceptible. All striped surfaces can thus constitute one of the lines in another, larger, striped surface, and so on. The semiology of the stripe is infinite.

That's why it is more to the social history than to the semiological stakes that the following chapters are devoted. The problem of the stripe does indeed lead to pondering the relationship between the visual and the social within a given society. Why, in the West, over the very long term, have the majority of social taxonomies expressed themselves most importantly through visual codes? Does the eye classify things better than the ear or the sense of touch? Is to see always to classify? That isn't the case either in every culture or in the animal world. Even so, why is the derogatory sign system, the one that draws attention to outcast individuals, dangerous places, or negative virtues, more heavily stressed (and thus more visible) than the status-enhancing sign system? Why is the historian more comfortable in the documentary terrain of the pejorative than of the laudatory?

Difficult and complex questions that can only be given brief answers. First, because this book intends to remain brief. Second, because the stripe is such a dynamic surface structure that it can only be covered at a run. The stripe doesn't wait, doesn't stand still. It is in perpetual motion (that's why it has always fascinated artists: painters, photographers, filmmakers), animates all it touches, endlessly forges ahead, as though driven by the wind. In the Middle Ages, Fortune, who turns the wheel of destiny for man, often wears a striped robe. Today, on a playground, the schoolchildren in striped clothes always seem more active than the others. And in the area of sports, striped shoes run faster than single-colored ones. Thus a book devoted to stripes must show itself capable of haste and swiftness.

Copyright © 1991 by Editions du Seuil

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface to the American Edition
Order and Disorder of the Stripe 1
The Devil and his Striped Clothes (13th-16th Centuries) 7
The Carmel Scandal 7
Striped Fabric, Bad Fabric 11
Saint Joseph's Breeches 16
Plain, Striped, Patterned, Spotted 19
The Figure and the Background: Heraldry and the Stripe 26
From the Horizontal to the Vertical and Back (16th-19th Centuries) 35
From the Diabolic to the Domestic 36
From the Domestic to the Romantic 41
The Revolutionary Stripe 48
To Stripe and to Punish 55
Stripes for the Present Time (19th-20th Centuries) 63
Hygiene of the Stripe 64
A World in Navy Blue and White 69
Oddball Zebras 74
Striped Surface, Dangerous Surface 80
From the Trace to the Mark 86
Bibliographic Orientation 93
About the Author 99
Notes 101
Index 121
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