Stripes have long been associated with mariners. Seamen, whether sailors or scallywags, are often depicted in art, photographs, and movies wearing the cliché striped jersey shirt. While the origin of this fashion staple is a bit fuzzy, its lasting impact on the attire of men, women, and children is as clear as, well, stripes.

            By the middle of the 1600s, sailors appear in English and Dutch paintings, wearing red and white, or blue and white, horizontally striped shirts. So, that depiction of Smee in Walt Disney’s Captain Hook, earns some respect. Why stripes became the pattern of choice for the lowest rung on the nautical career ladder is still debated. Some say that the striped underwear worn by crewmen was a natural progression from early European machine-made stockings, caps, and breeches, which due to the technical structure of knitting, happened to be striped. Others point to the high visibility of stripes for identification or in times of danger: it’s easier to spot a man up on the ship’s rigging or down in the water if he’s wearing stripes. Sort of like wearing a flag.

            Adopted by fishermen off the coasts of Normandy as well as the French Navy, the sailor stripe had by the mid-19th century infiltrated the seashore. Europeans discovered the pleasures of the beach, and sea bathers began sporting the nautical stripe, not only in their daring bathing suits but also in ladies dresses and parasols, children’s clothing, and canvas tents and chairs. The Victorian seaside was awash in stripes!

            Channeled by Coco Chanel into the fashion world in 1917, the stripe seems to get more and more popular through the decades. Every spring, fashion magazines announce the “nautical trend,” as though it were a new discovery. This love affair with parallel lines, plus the increasing attraction to steampunk style, will assure that stripes continue to fill the landscape as well as the seascape.



Fair was this youthful wife, . . . A girdle wore she, barred and striped,

of silk.

                                    —Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Miller’s Tale,” The Canterbury Tales, late–14th century.



For more photographs of striped clothing, see




Early 29th century Royal Navy sailors singing while off duty. Wikipedia.

Louis Carrogis, Comtesse de Belsunce, 1775. Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

Late Victorian dress, 1890s. PD-US.

French sailors in Breton stripes.