UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – The Devil’s Cloth

The Devil’s Cloth: A history of stripes and striped fabric by Michel Pastoureau looks at all things striped in Western societies from the Middle Ages onwards. For my current research project I am focusing on the use of stripes in art and on any symbology of stripes that may be of interest to an artist, so this post is not a review or summary, but a collection of ideas about stripes that may be relevant.

Vengence of Chiomara French 15th-16th century Bibliothèque nationale de France

Vengence of Chiomara
French 15th-16th century
Bibliothèque nationale de France

The medieval viewer, “particularly attentive to the materiality and structure of surfaces” (p. 19), was disturbed by stripes, which disrupted the standard reading of levels in an image. The stripe was used on images of outcasts and deviants. From this came many years of stripes indicating perjorative status.

Surfaces could be plain, patterned (eg with a regular distribution of fleur de lis), striped or spotted (irregular distribution). Striped and spotted were uncomfortable, with checks an intensified form of stripes.

Development of stripes: Medieval – two alternating colours, equal widths, rarely vertical; Later – not only two colours, not always equidistant; vertical, celebrating life after the plague (p. 42); aristocratic – sophisticated, tasteful, fashionable (p. 41). Different forms of stripes could express different value systems – if wide and high contrast, the prisoner or gangster; if narrow and pastel or lower contrast, elegance.

Early persons associated with stripes: Fortune, turning the wheel of destiny; Carmelite monks; Joseph (striped breeches); bastards; serfs; condemned; prostitutes; infirm; inferior occupations; ignominious trade; non-Christian; black Africans – servants or Magi (see for example Veronese The Adoration of the Magi, 1581 at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) – savages.

The heraldic stripe: Stripes are a basic unit of heraldry, with many variations. A coat of arms provides “signs of identity, marks of possession, and ornamental motifs all at the same time” (p. 26). If stripes are balanced in number (a partition) it remains a single plane; if unbalanced (pieces) the surface breaks into figure and background. Interestingly Pastoureau finds that there are few if any negative connotations when stripes are included in the blazon of a real individual, only a link between illegitimate family lines and stripes in a certain direction. Those created for imaginary or literary characters are more likely to use stripes to suggest wrongdoing or flaws of character.

Heraldry is a description of form rather than a particular physical creation. This seems to link with the more conceptual use of lines in art, such as LeWitt’s notations which can be implemented by assistants.

Domestic stripe: Heraldry –> Livery –> Domestic (also inferior connotation) and also–> Uniforms

The romantic, revolutionary stripe: impact of the American Revolution; French revolutionary stripe (link to against establishment?) –> patriotic stripe.

The maritime stripe: Used in identifying ranks, in jerseys, sails (a connection to wind) and flags. Then by association we have the sea –> seashore (the sea-side a less constrained venue, so can risk a stripe) –> sports, leisure and health. see for example Eugène Boudin Trouville, La Nourrice (circa 1885,

The protective, hygenic stripe: Stripes exclude – prisoners in striped uniforms behind bars – but those same bars guard and protect. We see striped pyjamas and underclothes – protection next to the body. These are often pastel colours, close to the undyed cloth that was once seen as most clean (given the source of some dyes).

The stripe and children: Protective, seaside and sports or games all lead to a connection with children. We see freshness, youthfulness, gaiety, playfulness – happy, healthy, dynamic and summer-like.

Stripes reveal and conceal: Stripes can play a trompe-l’oeil role. They disguise, fool the eye. I see a link as well to shadows, camouflage and concealment. Stripes also filter, such as shutters (linking back to protection).

The identifying stripe: athletic teams, students, corporates, military.

The warning stripe: Following the idea of the protective stripe, we see warning and forbidding stripes – often red and white. Pedestrian crossings, police tape, slow, detour, stop. Gates and fences form stripes – they are a guide and an obstacle. They can be agitating.

The stripe and music: Musicians (minstels) were travelers, on the fringes, often seen dressed in stripes. The musical staff and the strings on an instrument form stripes. Stripes and music can both produce rhythm and flow.

More stripes: ladders, railroads, the furrows from plowing, lines of telegraph poles, barcodes, combs (setting in order), tallies. Stripes are a warning of disorder and a form of putting in order.

Properties of stripes: a structure and / or a form; in perpetual motion, animating; disturbing; attracting attention (used by artists in compositions to direct the eye); ambiguity (in small amounts); passage from one state to another; intrigue and captivate; energize; brighten; make rooms larger (vertical) or lower (horizontal); create rhythm; association with wind and movement.

Weaving stripe: Claiming “striped fabric is very much subject to the constraints of weaving methods” (p.54) Pastoureau makes a link between the introduction of technology, such as spinning machines and the Jacquard loom, and the spread of stripes. I can’t accept a direct link – the technological impact was on productivity and industry, not the fundamental structures which can produce stripes – but there could be indirect impact via availability and cost of cloth.

bluelineThe bellringing line: This is my addition, not included in Pastoureau’s book. In changeringing the order in which the bells are sounded is varied in specific orders called methods. The structure of a method can be expresses in a notation such as &-36-14-12-36-14-56,12. That can be expanded into a diagram showing each change with all the bells, and the path of a particular bell is indicated by a line – known as the blue line. (Diagram produced using the online method database It’s stretching from stripes to lines, but I find the conceptual and notational link relevant.

Pastoureau writes “not only does the stripe show and hide at the same time, but it is altogether the figure and the substance, the finite and the infinite, the part and the whole”, ultimately concluding “Too many stripes can finally drive you mad” (p.91).


Pastoureau, M., trans. Gladding, J. (2001) The Devil’s Cloth: A history of stripes and striped fabrics New York: Columbia University Press. (French edition published 1991)

For actual reviews of the book see:
Fyfe, J. (2003) “The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric by Michel Pastoureau” artcritical: the online magazine of art and ideas April [online] Available from (Accessed 25-Apr-2014)

Rule, V. (2001) “Vertical or horizontal, ma’am?” The Guardian 15 Sept [online] Available from (Accessed 25-Apr-2014)

1 Response to “UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – The Devil’s Cloth”

  1. 1 UA1-WA:P4-p3-Research point: The female nude | Fibres of Being Trackback on June 6, 2014 at 8:44 pm

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