Earning stripes

Fashion, by its very definition, is an ephemeral affair. Sartorial vogues come and go and costume historians can date historical periods sometimes to the month by what people in a painting or engraving are wearing. One item of fashion that has been surprisingly tenacious is the necktie. This completely redundant accessory owes its modern appearance to 1692. At the Battle of Steenkerque, French officers were subject to a surprise attack by the Dutch; not having time to dress, their neckerchiefs, the linen cloth wrapped around the neck and covered by the top of a jacket, were in disarray and were outside of their jackets. So willing were they to engage the enemy that these gentlemen went out to battle with their undergarments showing. Wanting to commemorate one of the few French military victories in history -it is the Germans and the British who are the true military peoples of Europe, the former because of the long obsession with unification and the latter because of the vulnerability of inhabiting an island- fashionable ladies in Paris took to wearing a scarf around their necks that became known as a sternquerque or steinkirk in English. The image below shows Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, the wonderfully gossipy Liselotte who was married to the monarch’s transvestite gay brother, wearing one, which was crossed around the neck. I find it interesting that the contemporary sign of solidarity with troops coincidentally borrows the same crossed ribbon shape.


For women, this was not only a question of flexing their patriotic credentials but also served a more practical function of covering up their plunging necklines when attending church or in the presence of ecclesiastics. Decreasing necklines had occupied many a moralistic sermon and Jean Polman, a priest and canon, published a book in 1635 in which, at some length and with a suspiciously high degree of interest in his topic, he likens the décolleté fad to a canker eating away at society and infecting it with the pus of  lubricious thoughts and lewd deeds. The association of beauty and the breast is a deep-seated one; the English word gorgeous is derived from the French term for bosom, gorge.

ImageMen feeling pressure in their turn to empathize with the King’s soldiers, began to emulate the display of the stock on the outside of their jackets, as above. In this way, the chance awakening of French officers in the Netherlands gave rise to the ancestor of the modern necktie, women’s scarves, and indirectly as a refusal, the white Roman collar worn by clergy who chose not to follow the trend. Judicial, academic, and ecclesiastical dress has always had little to do with pragmatism and much to do with a conservative refusal to adopt evolving tastes.

Unlike the necktie, most fashions seem dated very easily. I remember being very struck by the Jungle Room in Graceland, both for how ghastly this room appears and for how it could only be the product of the 1970s. Elvis Presley loved the furniture with which he decorated this space in 1974, though his father remarked -in the affectionately judgmental way of a parent- that it was filled with the ugliest items of furniture he had ever seen.

ImageOne element that anchors the room to the 1970s is the presence of stripes in the room. The 1970s saw many striped trends, usually non-uniform, zebra-type stripes. In terms of general fashion, stripes are a relative newcomer. It was Coco Chanel who reclaimed the Breton stripes of French sailors (and, it might be added, bathing costumes) to more widespread use in garments. Coco had the art of making simple concepts into effortlessly sophisticated ones and she resisted the traditional wisdom of fashion in appropriating a working-class feature for high fashion, rather than a style filtering down.

Coco is pictured above with her unique casual finesse. Some people exude grace from their very pores. Coco was such a person. Without her input, stripes would not be so integral a part of our clothing and interiors, for better or worse. Why the zebra-striped theme was to become popular in the early 1970s is somewhat mysterious, but my own pet theory is that the idea was sparked by the iconic album cover for the Beatles’ Abbey Road album which was released in September 1969.

The image is memorable, unusual, and permeated into collective minds.  Since an obscure battle resulted in the necktie and silk scarf, why should we ponder the unintended sartorial consequences of a record sleeve?

Today’s cufflinks are designed by the Finnish jeweller Karl Laine and bear his maker’s mark. They are made out of sterling silver with oxidized indentations forming stripes. Because they are made in Finland they have a date code of 1974, but even without this, it would have been possible to place them at around the same time that Elvis was embellishing his Jungle Room with striped furniture. Regular-striped patterns hail very much from the 1960s, but the following decade saw a more eccentric use of them. This pair was unused stock, so had never been worn until I first put them on. While these kind of tiger stripes did fall out of fashion, they are now held up as vintage chic, and so, once again, things come full circle.


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