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Stripes Checkered Past

As published in the Napa Valley Register.

Whenever I look for fabrics for a design project, I keep a few things in mind. Above all, I think of function. What is its durability level? Will it be exposed to direct sunlight? What fiber content, weave, and style are most appropriate, and what colors fit into the developing palette?

While these questions churn in the back of my mind, I also ask clients about their preferences. “Do you like geometric patterns such as plaids, checks, stripes, and chevrons, or do you prefer curvilinear patterns like florals, botanicals, toiles, damasks, and paisleys?” Although there are dozens of other patterns, their answers set me on a clear path. In all my years working with clients, there has been only one pattern that has evoked a strongly negative reaction. Stripes. It’s a bit surprising, isn’t it? They seem more neutral than florals or paisleys, don’t you think? Most of the time, clients lean one way or the other but on a handful of memorable occasions, I’ve heard an adamant, “No stripes!” Last week, I wrote about plaid’s interesting history and its variations. While doing that research, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was also an interesting story about stripes. There is. I came upon a book written by French social historian, Michel Pastoureau, titled, “The Devil’s Cloth.” Pastoureau points out that in the European Middle Ages, striped cloth represented deviance. He explained that criminals, madmen, prostitutes, servants, and court jesters were forced to wear striped clothing by official order. (Such classifications are Pastoureau’s, not mine.) He further wrote, “The bold, broad, contrasting stripes of their garments seemed to stand for neither-this-nor-that, ambivalence, ambiguity, and a realm of unclear and violated boundaries.” Remember, he’s referring to the Middle Ages when paintings were flat and lacked three-dimensional perspective. The medieval eye was accustomed to seeing images through figure-ground organization. That is, the background was established before the foreground could be comprehended. As an example, the white background of this column is distinct from, and seen before, the black lettering.

When the Carmelites first arrived in Europe from the Holy Land, their striped garments caused a great disturbance. Pastoureau describes the wearing of stripes in the 13th and 14th centuries as a “frightening transgression.” This harsh judgment began to ease during the Italian Renaissance when wearing stripes was seen as bold and daring. More impish and mischievous than deviant or criminal. The 18th century saw stripes take on new and positive meanings; ones that connoted freedom, youth, humor, and playfulness. On the other hand, they were also incorporated into formal Coat of Arms, heraldry, and military uniforms. As time passed, striped cloth became associated with sports, leisure, outdoor furniture, awnings and beach umbrellas. Just like plaids, stripes come in a variety of patterns. There are pin stripes, hairline stripes, dress stripes, and candy stripes that are so thin that they can look like solids from a distance. Larger stripes include Bengal, awning, barcode, and Bayadere. Some stripes are neither vertical nor horizontal but zig-zagged, diagonal, chevron or even wavy. All can consist of two or more colors and each stripe can vary in width.

When it comes to interior design, I use vertical stripes to visually create height, especially to raise a ceiling. I use horizontal stripes to widen a narrow footprint like a hallway. In general, subtle and tonal colors of stripes, with varying widths, are best in sophisticated or formal spaces while either pastel or bold stripes work best in casual, country, or coastal spaces. There are countless other interior scenarios where, fortunately, there are countless other stripes that will work so beautifully that even Pastoureau would approve.

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