Sunday, September 25, 2016

Stripes, Checked Suits and Camouflage La Bohème

Anon, cover photograph of The Sketch (1919)
Above This photograph (attributed to the Western Newspaper Union) was published on the front cover of The Sketch magazine in London on Wednesday, June 18, 1919 (No 1377 Vol CVL). The headline beneath it reads DISPLAYING HER 'STRIPES," BUT HIDING HER HEAD: ZEBRA EFFECTS IN HOSIERY AND PARASOL. A clarifying caption states—

The vogue of the stripe—which has affinities, perhaps, with the new "dazzle" designs born of naval camouflage—is very prevalent among the votaries of summer fashions. Here is an example, which was carried out in blue and white, from the other side of the Atlantic. It would turn a tiger or a zebra green with envy.

While it is tempting to say that stripes and other high contrast optical patterns were caused by the adoption of dazzle ship camouflage during World War I, there are also reasons to conclude that the practice is quite a bit older than that. There is a section related to this in Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 151-152—

[If one were on the lookout for Bohemian artists, a telltale attribute would be] an ostentatious pair of checked trousers or a checked suit, which cropped up like the measles wherever artists gathered together. These dazzling checkerboards of Op art squares danced down the legs of poets, painters and poseurs from Chelsea to Paris. Paul Nash dashed off an illustration to [Dora] Carrington, showing himself squared up like a bistro tablecloth. "I have just got a check suit that will stagger humanity. My word it is a check suit." They were really very loud—the point being, that nobody could mistake you in a crowd. The Punch cartoonist who wanted to depict a Bohemian artist invariably tricked out his legs in check. When he became more confident, [Mark] Gertler wore them instead of evening clothes, while the painter Michael Wickham teamed his with an orange-sprigged waistcoat. [Walter] Sickert got himself to look like a bookie in checks and a bowler. Evelyn Waugh overdrew at the bank to purchase a pair of checked trousers in 1925, and Dylan Thomas dressed in loud check suits because the thought they made him look like a successful scriptwriter. My father, Quentin Bell [of Bloomsbury Group fame], used to wear blue and white checked trousers bought from a cooks' outfitters in Old Compton Street, but the pattern gradually disappeared beneath incrustations of plaster.