Curiosities In Praise of Stripes
Zebras and tigers, candy canes and barber poles, bumblebees on awnings!
To the extent that the world is striped, it is a happy place.
I call your attention to the following: awnings, beach umbrellas, cabana huts along the French Riviera, gondoliers’ shirts, straw hats, tigers and zebras, barber poles, candy canes, silk pajamas, Breton sweaters, skunk and raccoon tails, flags and bunting, bumblebees, circus tents, popcorn vending machines, racing cars, towels and ties, frogs and fish, Edwardian swimming costumes.
Among striped objects it is possible to find things sad or ugly. Prisoners’ uniforms come to mind, as do guard houses and crossing gates. There can be something admonishing or even threatening about stripes—an alarm, a shout, a scream. Why do prisoners wear stripes? Do the horizontal bands countermand the vertical bars? Or are (were, since the custom has passed) a prisoner’s stripes an attempt to inject some gaiety into their monotonous days? In that case, why black and white stripes? Why not red and yellow? Or purple and green?
There was a time when wearing stripes could not only put you out of fashion, but get you killed. According to Michel Pastoureau’s The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric , such was the case for an order of Carmelite monks. Inspired by the prophet Elijah, who supposedly sailed off into the sky on a chariot of fire, leaving behind his cloak striped with dark singe marks, these monks’ habits were striped brown and white. On their arrival in Palestine in the mid-thirteenth century, the monks soon earned the nickname “les frères barrés”—an undesirable nickname, as the term “barré” signified not only stripes but illegitimacy. Ordered by Pope Alexander to surrender their stripes, they refused, incurring twenty-five years of threats and abuse, until Alexander’s successor issued a bull banning striped clothing from all religious orders.
Stripes were the trademarks of bandits, whores, cripples, lepers, hangmen, bastards, clowns, jugglers, and heretics. There was a time when striped animals fared poorly as well, with otherwise innocent zebras ranked among the diabolical creatures in Satan’s bestiary. Into the last half of the eighteenth century, a mythic beast called “the beast of Gévaudan” terrorized French farmers and other rural folk. That the beast was striped goes without saying.
I refuse to see stripes in a negative light. Stripes have been good to me. Even when they fail to arouse the patriot in me, the stripes on the American flag give me intrinsic pleasure. As for barber poles, with their mesmerizing red, white, and blue stripes, you’d think that getting a haircut was the most patriotic thing a boy could do, up there with voting, giving blood, and joining the Marines.
I wrote a story once about stripes, about a boy searching for red and gray wide-striped pajamas like the ones his dead father used to wear. I wrote it fifteen years ago. Recently my brother shipped me a Christmas present. I tore it open immediately. Inside, a lovely pair of English pajamas: pure silk, with wide red and gray stripes. I put them on right away. They felt so soft, so silky. Silkier still for being striped, the vertical lines of color slithering cool over my flesh. I sleep better in them.
Stripes have had their roles to play in the workplace as well. Sailors aboard their gray ships in striped uniforms, the blue and white stripes meant to symbolize—I assume—the horizon, that ubiquitous line stretching between sky and sea, but also there to add a note of cheer between bouts of warfare, boredom, and seasickness. The gondolier’s striped shirt is emblematic of his masculinity: He can get away with it, so he does. His cousin the pizza vendor also wears stripes, thinner ones of red to go with tomato sauce. Butchers, too, wore stripes once, likewise red, though in that case the color stood for blood. In all cases a note of joy is attached to servitude. As the gondolier is a prisoner of his gondola, so the pizza man must whirl his pies. As the butcher must wrestle with bone and gristle, so the prisoner serves time. The pajama wearer is a servant of sleep.
Even awnings and umbrellas serve to remind us of the bottom line as it pertains to stripes: joyful obeisance. Is it any wonder a sergeant earns his stripes? Or that a tiger can’t change his?
Remember Stripe toothpaste? Invented in 1955 by Leonard Lawrence Marraffino and sold to Lever Brothers in 1957, the year I was born, the technology consisted of a thin tube with a series of small holes in the front connected to the main toothpaste tube, which contained plain white toothpaste. A connected but separate area in the front of the tube held a relatively small amount of red-colored paste. When squeezed, the white toothpaste moved down the thin pipe, producing pressure that pulled the red material through the series of small holes to merge with the viscous stream, resulting in a ribbon of white toothpaste with red stripes. For the first two years following its introduction, the brand was popular, capturing a significant 8 percent of the US toothpaste market. But as the novelty wore off (despite a 4.4 million dollar advertising campaign and a “rocket balloon” gift for kids included with each tube ) , sales of Stripe plummeted, and by 1964 it was off the shelves. A shame. Though it contained a substance called “Hexachlorophene” that was later shown to be toxic , while it lasted Stripe was unquestionably the happiest of toothpastes.
A joyful obeisance is all we can ask of life. It is what the religious prophets called for and what anyone who has lost her or his self in service to a higher cause will claim as the source of all bliss. I have known the blissful surrender of artistic discipline, joyous imprisonment, the forces of creativity arranged in bright, regimented rows: inspiration, talent, craft, labor. Stripes are nothing if not organized and enterprising.
And who says stripes are impractical? Zoologists believe that a zebra’s black and white stripes help keep it cool by heating up at different rates, generating micro-breezes all over its body. As for tigers’ stripes, they are said to help the animals blend into their surroundings, the better for sneaking up on their prey, to which I say phooey! Blake didn’t write: “Tyger Tyger, blending in . . .”
I’ve invested in striped sheets, striped socks, striped sweaters and striped shirts, striped tea and coffee mugs, striped bed sheets, striped towels, striped upholstery, pillows and linens. Color my world striped.
Civilization ought to be striped: brightly disciplined, colorfully tame, seriously silly. Like Venetian mooring poles and the blazers Tommy Steele wears in Half a Sixpence (a lavishly produced but otherwise forgettable motion picture musical).
Imagine how much better a world this would be were more things striped in it. Suppose all police officers wore candy-striped uniforms. Soldiers, too. What if armaments and weapons were striped? By decree, institutional buildings, schools, hospitals, and prisons would all be striped. Factories, too. Instead of gray, business people would wear bright, loud, silly stripes. Only children would be allowed to wear gray if they so chose. And, of course, they wouldn’t!