The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes

Michel Pastoureau

Read October 2003

You have to hand it to the semioticists: even when they're ostensibly talking nonsense, they can be so much fun to read. The richly nuanced use of examples can sometimes leave you wondering whether these aren't the exceptions that make the rule, and the trivia can sometimes make you forget what the point is, but I find that often only heightens the enjoyment.

Pastoureau's book sets out to examine the history of stripes since medieval times to represent evil, stupidity or both. (Why the middle ages? He doesn't tell, but perhaps it's because he's a medievalist.) He has a vaguely credible, and certainly entertaining, theory of how stripes came to have these connotations. I don't want to steal his thunder, so I'll just say it has to do with the traditional methods of viewing medieval art, and how stripes confuse figure and ground. Given that he argues this in lucid prose, you can already see it's going to be fun.

This is just Pastoureau gearing up. He traces the use of stripes in art and clothing, moves on to their evolution into symbols of rebellion and freedom (think American and French flags), then on to Buffon's views on the zebra (you saw that coming) and Obelix, prisoners and Picasso. Pastoureau is clearly beside himself with joy when playing with a tube of Signal toothpaste. The endnotes are themselves half the fun, adding references to the Adidas logo, the fraticelle, leopards vs lions, stripes on fabrics filled or furled by wind (flags, tents, etc), and so on, for a breathless little volume just over a hundred (small) pages long. And though Escher doesn't earn a mention, his use of stripes and other regular patterns to create paradoxical images illustrates Pastoureau's point.

Naturally, a book like this provokes more questions than it resolves. How should one view piping and borders, stripes-that-aren't-stripes? Reading his discussion of heraldry, what to make of the somewhat daring logos of staid universities like Princeton and Rice? And what of the lovely striped churches and palazzos of Liguria, Tuscany and those parts?

Pastoureau begins the book with a heartfelt preface about the difference between "commissioned" and "planned" books. The former are commercial (and, presumably, popular in both senses of the word), while the latter are the research tomes written for a handful of one's colleagues. Pastoureau tells us this book is of the latter kind, a claim justified by its endnotes, yet also hardly credible when one confronts its exuberance (or, for that matter, contemplates its lovely commercial packaging). This one, clearly, was a double-header. (Indeed, it was the cover that first grabbed my attention, reminding me of the Aqua Sapone and Domina Vacanze team uniforms. The book, though, predates the picaresque Mario Cipollini, who would have delighted Pastoureau so.)

How to evaluate this book? While Pastoureau's theory may give people who study problems of rendering images or analyzing them some valuable hints, in the end I don't think it matters. In the final analysis, this is a joyous romp by a scholar cutting loose. What's not to like?