Originally worn by Breton fishermen, the striped shirt became the official uniform of French sailors in 1858. They argued that, thanks to the 21 blue and white stripes, it was easier to find a man if he fell into the sea. Before this, in the Middle Ages, they were a sign of transgression with a negative connotation because of their use on black and white prisoner uniforms. Striped fabrics also made an appearance during the French Revolution, as a symbol of political upheaval. Meanwhile, in the United States, stripes, together with stars, came to embody freedom. The American flag, which appeared in 1777, symbolized the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
In the 20th century, stripes became a key part of the fashion iconography for many brands. The pioneer was Adidas, which established its three-striped insignia in 1928, on the sneakers worn by athlete Lina Radke. Then it was Sonia Rykiel, who began to design her own clothes at the end of the '60s. Her first piece was almost surrealist, a simple but eccentric striped pullover that became a hit with the international press and ended up on the cover of Elle France. At the end of the '80s, American designer Tommy Hilfiger, further underscored the power of red, white, and blue stripes. Linked to the colors of the U.S. flag, they became a true symbol of the American dream. A Brit also wanting in on the fun, Sir Paul Smith revealed a hyper-colored dandy version in the '90s, poised among the designer's classic tailoring, humor, and rock allure.
Although ubiquitous, each designer has made stripes uniquely their own. Jean Paul Gaultier, for example, broke down gender differences with his Breton-striped clothing collection, which was inspired by the queer film Querelle, a homoerotic story of a Belgian seaman. Also linked to the maritime theme are the stripes of Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, the multicolor beach “deck chair” pattern, which was woven into their knitted creations.
Today, brands such as Petit Bateau, the French children's clothing maison, and Sunnei, the Italian label from Simone Rizzo and Loris Messina, carry on the passion for stripes. Sunnei has even made the print a signature of its collections, offering thin, thick, mono, and multicolored versions mixed with its modern tailoring and streetwear.