Monday, November 6, 2017

The Rise of Striped Trousers

A few months ago I was preparing to attend Before the Siege: The British Army at Yorktown. As part of the organizing effort for the naval contingent, I compiled all the images I have collected dating to 1781 to get a snapshot of what artists thought sailors should look like in that period. I was surprised at how many were wearing striped trousers.

Detail from A Man of War Towing a Frigate into Harbour,
Carrington Bowles, 1781, British Museum.

This led me to wonder how prevalent striped trousers were over the course of my era of study. Focusing, for now, only on the art created during the time, I put together a graph showing the presence of trousers in the available art.

Out of 416 images that can be tightly dated, 231 depict sailors in trousers. I have included all images of trousers, including plain (generally prints which were not colored), white, and striped. The remaining images depict petticoat breeches, breeches alone, or the sailor's clothing below the waist is too indistinct to draw any conclusions. The orange line represents the total number of works included, and the blue represents the number of those pieces that depict a sailor wearing trousers.

Click to Enlarge

Trousers (plain, white, and striped altogether) are relatively constant in their presence in most depictions of sailors from 1740 through 1790. This is not true of striped trousers.

Click to Enlarge

Striped trousers are not present in any significant numbers until a sudden explosion beginning in 1779.

I can only speculate as to the reasons for this sudden popularity. Perhaps it was tied with the rising tide of identifying the common sailor as a personification of Britain, like patriotic bunting. Or maybe the opposite is true and it was loosely linked (as it would later be to the sans-culottes of the French Revolution) to a perceived democratic fervor among the lower ranks of society, as we can see in the 1781 political cartoon The Virtuous and inspir'd State of Whigism in Bristol 1781.

Detail from The Virtuous and inspir'd State of Whigism in Bristol 1781,
artist unknown, 1781, British Museum

I stress that these are mere theories, and I have not dug any deeper than pure numbers based on artistic depictions alone. Stay tuned, because I'll be examining other specific garments in the near future!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. For a history of stripes (I'm serious), check out; Pastoureau, Michel, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric (New York, 2001) [English translation of Ibid., Rayures: une histoire des rayures et des tissus rayĆ©s (Paris, 1995).

  3. And for a critical review, I'd reccomend; Vera Rule/The Guardian newspaper, 'Vertical or horizontal ma'am - review of 'The Devil's Cloth', Sept. 14, 2001. Available at: Accessed: Nov. 6, 2017.

  4. From 2024, I send a message to the author of 2017... striped trousers are still in use. Phew. As Ascot week comes into view I have become rather interested in the history of the Morning Suit. One question I've been trying to track down is why the suit trousers in a morning suit are striped. Hence landing on your article. I rather like the idea of the trouser design being a nod to our maritime history. My only concern though is the suit is based on cavalry and equestrian lines and is therefore a little at odds. I will continue this pointless but strangely enjoyable journey, unless anyone can provide a few pointers. Thanks for this interesting article.