Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wearing Stripes Could Get You Killed in Medieval Europe

‘History Of’ explores the peculiar backstory of the ubiquitous clothing pattern.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Stripes have countless associations today, from preppy (think thick rugby stripes) to chic French girls (hello, Breton shirts) to old-school jails (the poster for O Brother, Where Art Thou comes to mind).

But centuries ago, stripes had a different interpretation, and it wasn’t a good one. For Medieval Europeans, stripes stood for difference and disorder, and striped clothing was worn by hangmen, non-Christians, clowns, lepers, disloyal knights — basically, people who society marked as outcasts. A French cobbler was even condemned to death, local records show, because he was “caught in striped clothes.”

Thankfully that changed centuries later, in part thanks to the American Revolution, which made wearing stripes a political act of patriotism and a sign of enlightened thinking. Stripes spread to France, where they were worn during that country’s revolution, and became a legitimate fashion trend.

From there, stripes took a variety of forms, worn by outcast prisoners to sea-faring French sailors. But suffice it to say, they shed the evil connotations — even if they can seem evil when it comes time to wash them.

Follow Racked on YouTube for more videos | Like Racked on Facebook to never miss a video