Sunday, March 14, 2021

Weekend Review: The Devil's Cloth


The Devil's Cloth / Michel Pastoureau
trans. from the French by Jody Gladding
NY: Washington Square Press, 2003, c1991
144 p.

I picked up this little book on the history of stripes a while ago. It was originally published in 1991 but reissued in the early 2000s, and is written by a French scholar, although I must say this book isn't really very scholarly! A lot of suppositions and unsupported assertions, even in a tiny book. 

It started out as a pretty interesting read, with the history of the Carmelite order in France and how stripes were used to mark them out as mendicants -- the first section was the most interesting for me; as it moves forward in time the research that the chapters are based on seems like it gets more vague. This earlier era must be his specialty because these bits feel more thorough and believable. It discusses stripes in religious iconography, what they may symbolize at this time, and moves on to the ways in which stripes were representative in heraldry. All quite fascinating! 

The next section, of four chapters, covers how stripes were representative of revolution and eventually imprisonment. But it opens by comparing horizontal to vertical stripes, and how the significance of each differed. It also covers the appearance of a 'good' stripe, a fashionable one influenced by Orientalism and the vogue for African wildlife like zebras. This was a clever way to show how societal changes were affecting the use of striped fabric, and also how stripes could be mutable in their meanings. 

The final section is, to me, the weakest, only because it's a lot of theory and many notes that "this area needs more research".  It does consider why stripes are common on nightclothes in the 19th and 20th century, and how "oddballs" like artists and eccentrics embraced the stripe. Of course, the entire book is from the French perspective, so the examples are rooted in French culture, and maybe not always widely transferable. 

Still, it's a clever little book and gives some room for consideration when you're thinking about how and why we use stripes today. Is there the same kind of symbolic importance to choosing a striped outfit today, other than to suggest a nautical air? Or to nod to Chanel and the Breton tee? If you're interested in getting some background on the role stripes have held in history, for sure you could pick up this brief book and learn a few neat tidbits. Handy to have some of these facts to share in a conversation! Just don't expect an in-depth interrogation of the use of the stripe as a fashion motif across the globe -- this is more of a short history/meditation on stripes in French culture. 

What do you think? Do you like stripes, and do you choose to sew with them or wear them for any reason besides visual appeal? How about the horizontal/vertical divide when it comes to wearing stripes? And are you a regular or irregular stripe aficionado?


  1. This sounds interesting, especially the parts about who would and would not wear stripes, and why, throughout history. I love stripes and do not automatically think of sailors or prisoners. Currently they fit into "classic" style, which I wear, but high contrast does not work for me so it's usually tonal stripes or colors of similar intensity. I wear both vertical and horizontal stripes but not combinations - again, too much contrast.
    I haven't seen you sewing very many things with stripes. How do you feel about them?

    1. I'm not drawn to striped fabrics in general, although I do have a couple of items in a stripe. I seem to go for more subtle stripes, low contrast or narrow. I do have a large scale irregular stripe in my stash but it's been there for a long time-- I can't figure out what to do with it!


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!