Stripes, Stripes Everywhere, But Not a Stop to Think!

Sarah Jessica Parker in stripes
SJP striped–from the June 2013 issue of Russian Harper’s Bazaar

There’s much to be said for stripes.Betsy Ross made sure to include them from George Washington’s sketch for the United States flag. They’re considered important to designate ranks for enlisted men in the Armed Services. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist thought enough of stripes to add four thin ones to each sleeve of his robe and wore it during Bill Clinton’s impeachment to charges of going Gilbert and Sullivan. Candy Stripers are identified by their uniforms in hospitals everywhere. Sports clothing often sport stripes, and, traditionally, stripes distinguish French matelot jerseys. Stripes figure prominently in the artwork of, to name a few, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Daniel Buren, Kenneth Noland and Agnes Martin. So we’re not likely to be stripped of stripes any time soon.

But sometimes walking down Manhattan streets-and maybe too many streets elsewhere-and taking in the recurrence of now ubiquitously fashionable stripes, a fellow or gal can become as dizzy as if he or she is looking at a Bridget Riley canvas. We can get to the point where we wish those damn vertical and horizontal stripes would just disappear.

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The reason for the stripe parade is, of course, the fashion world’s decree-the kind of decree that often follows one designer’s whim and is taken up by others sniffing something hot in the fashion wind. But, as Bertolt Brecht begs in The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, “Oh, don’t ask why, oh,don’t ask why!”

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Seems to this bleary-eyed observer that the first word on stripes as a necessary addition to a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe went out a few years ago, but, according to Harper’s Bazaar, Oscar de la Renta was still plugging them in his Spring 2013 collection, and if you read Cathy Horyn‘s New York Times coverage these past few weeks, you see that at least Peter Som is still pushing them for next spring.

The result is they now show up everywhere, often with the designers varying them by dividing the stripes in blocks and running them diagonally or in horizontal and vertical opposition to each other, much as LeWitt and colleagues did when working their minimalist patterns. Nice try, designers, but all it means is that the variations begin to look alike.

This, perhaps needless to say, goes to the heart of what fashion is and where it can lead: to women allowing themselves to be followers rather than leaders. Important to remember, I’d say, is that fashion isn’t style, and that when Sarah Jessica Parker wears a striped dress in which to chat on a January 2013 edition of Kelly Ripa’s Live With… talkathon, she can look stylish. She always did in Patricia Field’s unexpected ensembles for Sex and the City.

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But when women rush to grab up striped clothes because the industry has declared that this spring-or this fall-it’s a must-have for the fashion-smart, they turn themselves not, as hoped, into fashion plates but, as feared, into fashion victims. Stripes, with their facility to lengthen or widen the figure, have long been warned against. Keeping that in mind, you notice that too many of the currently striped have unfortunately forgotten that valuable observation.

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Stripes electrified
Stripes electrified

Most of the stripes snaking around these days have been combinations of white and black or white and blue, giving the impression that the clothes are warm-weather coolants. I began noticing this-I don’t know-a year, two years ago. Then I kept noticing it and noticing it, until I thought, okay, once fall 2013 arrives, stripes will end up in storage and perhaps even discarded by savvy fashionistas as soooooo 2011-2013. But no, I’ve seen ads promoting darker hues for the coming fall and winter seasons-blue and maroon, for instance.

Since I can be slow on the uptake, I only learned recently that stripes are due to be superseded by-get this-polka dots, not so much because of a single designer’s declaration as Kate Middleton appearing in them. Apparently polka dots were already sailing down runways in 2011, but to date they haven’t taken over. Yes, when Parker regaled Ripa’s viewers in stripes, she was so fashion-forward that she held a purse with polka dot insets. But this was SJP. Has she ever worn the ensemble again? She can afford not to.

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Even if polka dots do replace stripes so that the world becomes a big commercial for Damien Hirst’s dot series, there’s a larger issue at play. (Commerce-mad Hirst would undoubtedly love that.) And the issue isn’t one being expressed here for the first time, either. The problem is that when fashion czars decree some new thing-some new boot length, some new color-there’s the damning implication that women who don’t follow suite (or suit) have fallen woefully behind the times.

There’s another way to look at this-a more dismaying way. When the fashion industry makes the kind of pronouncement that has the effect that stripes have had, the consequence is that women falling in line are tacitly agreeing to look alike, but how do they feel about that? Some of them may like it. They’re signaling to each other that they know where it’s at. They’re silently affirming that they’re in the know on what’s currently chic.

Stripes judged appropriate

Or do they look at each other with regret? Does it cross their mind that they’ve been snookered, that if they had more confidence in their own style sense, they wouldn’t have to subordinate their own instincts and desires as the way to fit in? They might even realize there are other looks with which to earn their stripes as women who know who they are.

The thing about stripes for women, then, is they’re a fad. The same doesn’t go for men. They’re lucky. For men, who generally don’t spend much time looking at how the other guy is dressed, stripes-including pinstripes-aren’t fashion. They’re tradition. Maybe some men-metrosexuals, if there are any still hanging about-think otherwise.

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For most men, though, stripes are an acceptable way to look when the urge to appear much beyond well-groomed doesn’t often crop up. A striped polo shirt, a broad-striped rugby shirt, a regimental tie is always good enough. A satin stripe down both legs of a pair of tuxedo trousers is okay. What’s more, none of these designs is unlikely to be replaced by polka dots any time soon.