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Wearing Stripes Could Get You Killed in Medieval Europe

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

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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.

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