Aleks Cvetkovic charts the checkered history of the chalkstripe.
This article was originally published in November 2018.
The chalkstripe, rather unfairly, has a reputation for corporate conformity. True, it’s synonymous with city suiting and the legal profession, but its roots precede the uniforms of middle-class professionals, stretching back into the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In fact, stripes in their earliest form were seen as quite informal. Dress trousers, similar to today’s ‘spongebag’ grey striped morning trousers, were worn with black frockcoats or tailcoats for what was known as ‘day dress,’ or ‘half dress’ – that is to say, for the less formal situations in a gentleman’s day-to-day. It was only really the rise of the 20th century businessman that put paid to the stripe’s apparent casualness, with the plain worsted cloths of formal ‘full dress’ relegated to lounge suit territory, in the stripe’s place.
Named after its soft, mottled appearance, the chalk stripe was subsequently adopted by modern city slickers in the 1910s, firstly as the uniform of corporate big wigs (in many British and American finance firms, only the top ranks of bankers were permitted to wear inch-apart stripes – an unofficial marker of their status), and later by mafiosos looking to give a powerful but above-board impression to society at large. ‘Oh, Mr. Rothstein, what do you do?’, ‘Why, I’m a philanthropist, madam’.