The fashion police were for real
As crazy as it may seem, in Medieval Europe, the simple act of wearing stripes could lead to your imprisonment or even your death. Why? Quite simply, for some reason, striped clothes were seen as the garments of the devil. Thus, anyone caught wearing them would, at best, get an evil eye from people in the street or, at worst, get a hangman’s noose around their neck. Indeed, there are countless examples of people being persecuted simply for choosing to wear the wrong thing. The fashion police were very real and they were very harsh and extremely unforgiving.
Quite when and where this extreme prejudice against stripes started, nobody can say for certain. However, historians of the period have found ample evidence to show that, far from being a brief and localized phenomenon, it was actually quite commonplace right across Europe for many decades, if not centuries. In the year 1310 in the French town of Rouen, for example, a local cobbler was condemned to death simply because he “had been caught in striped clothes“. Even members of the clergy weren’t exempt – in fact, they were judged even more harshly. So much so that in 1295, Pope Boniface VIII issued a Papal Decree banning religious orders from wearing any type of striped clothing.
From the year 1250 onwards, then, the only people who would be caught wearing striped were the lowest of the low in society. Prostitutes, lepers and cripples would don striped outfits, highlighting their status as outsiders. Similarly, those born out of wedlock would routinely be required to wear striped clothes. And, if you were judged to be a really serious offender, then you hangman would most likely be wearing a striped uniform. Crazily, even animals weren’t exempt. The records show that zebras were called ‘the beasts of the devil’ – even though people in Europe had only ever heard reports of them and not seen one with their own eyes.
With the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe, the hatred of stripes eased and eventually disappeared. Many looked on the phenomenon with confusion, and understandably so. More recently, however, scholars have sought to explain quite why this was such an issue in the Middle Ages. One theory is that stripes can act as a form of camouflage and so simple fear drove the prejudice. Others think it stemmed from a much-too-literal interpretation of the Old Testament verse forbidding the wearing of garments made from two types of material.