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How to: Style Stripes


Menswear writer Josh Sims offers his two cents on the best way to wear your favourite stripes


When it comes to their wardrobes, many men tend to fight shy of pattern: a very subtle gingham or an understated tattersall check may pass muster, but generally you can keep your big plaid, your paisley and your polka dot, thank you. But there’s one exception: from suits to ties, but above all in shirts, stripes are not just the acceptable face of pattern, they’re the fastest way of smuggling some liveliness into perhaps otherwise sober attire

The easiest way to embrace stripes is to let them peek from under a tailored jacket, bringing interest to a dark suit, as well as providing a tie in a solid colour – either contrasting with or echoing the shade of your stripe – with more presence. Just recall how the striped shirt took centre-stage in the power dressing of 1980s Wall Street. In the film of the same name, Michael Douglas even wears a horizontally striped shirt. And for that matter, if you really want to up the ante, team that striped shirt with a striped regimental tie too – it’s counter-intuitive perhaps, but there’s no reason why stripes can’t be worn to gently clash. The trick here is just to make sure that your different stripes are of different widths.

But this is to forget the fun in putting a striped shirt centre-stage – worn tieless with chinos for a business-lite style, or worn untucked over a white T-shirt. Whether that shirt is an understated burgundy striped Oxford button-down – always a classic – or a more formal multi-track striped shirt, it’s a simple way of making a statement without making yourself the centre of attention.

Indeed, be thankful that nobody’s out to get medieval on your wardrobe, because the kind of attention stripes have garnered has not always been welcome. In fact, the striped shirt has – thanks to a liberally interpreted line from Leviticus – historically been associated with a certain roguishness, even devilishness. From the 13th to 15th century, stripes were only worn by outsiders – from inmates to street performers, lepers to lunatics, anyone held in low social regard. Later, stripes would be forced on servants and slaves.

What did it take for stripes to attain fashionability? According to one theory, nothing less than the Black Death, which left the few survivors – and inheritors of multiple estates – suddenly very wealthy and keen to show the fact off with more ornamental clothing. In a complete turnaround for the stripe, suddenly it wasn’t symbolic of the low-born, but the avant-garde.

Jump two centuries on: add Queen Victoria’s love of nautical style – at least for her son and later style-setter Edward, Prince of Wales – to the French Navy’s adoption of the Breton top, and multiply that with the boom in seaside holiday-making and Coco Chanel’s stamp of approval, and striped clothing was finally made a staple of the tres chic. It just means you may have to put up with the occasional jesting question as to why you’re dressed like a deckchair.

Remarkably, the first half of the 20th century even saw the development of a kind of code of stripes – at least among well-to-do-Americans. Those more upper-class wore muted and narrow stripes, while looking down on the gauche nouveau riche, who wore broad and bold, ostentatious stripes.

The code may be less clear today, but it’s easy to see how a Panama striped shirt, or Thomas Pink’s seven-coloured Bengal stripe shirt – somehow all the more stripey for having a plain white collar and cuffs – makes a very different impression to its more minimalistic Dobby Rope cousin, with its stripes so fine as to almost merge. Either way, contrary to the saying, you do not have to earn your stripes, you just have to be ready to get playful with them.