Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Philosophy of Stripes

I don't really pay that much attention to fashion. Occasionally I check in with the Sartorialist to see what beautiful people he's found lately in this or that corner of Paris, Rome, or Tokyo. And every week I watch Bill Cunningham's On the Street, though really more for a chance to hear him say the word "maavelous" and listen to his obvious enthusiasm for getting paid to go around town taking pictures than for any fashion trends he may be spotting out there.

In his video this week, Wistful, Bill waxes poetic on the rich colors of the Manhattan spring, showing us both Japanese wisteria (fuji) and azalea (tsutsuji). He then likens the incipient fashion of bold, vertical stripes in women's clothes this season to the dripping wisteria. My first reactions was "Oh, that's maavelous Bill — but a bit of a stretch."

But then yesterday, I happened to pick up a striped book in the bookstore called, strangely, The Structure of Iki, which pretty much confirmed what good old Bill was saying:
.... (V)ertical stripes appear to the eyes as parallel lines more easily than horizontal ones. The fact that our eyes are lined up horizontally right and left makes it easier for us to follow the parallel lines set up by a design of vertical stripes running side by side, so that a design that embodies the fundamental parallel relationship horizontally appears to the right and left of one another. Somewhat more effort is required to perceive horizontal stripes, where the fundamental of the parallel relationship is defined vertically by the two lines — one below the other. In other words, because our eyes are placed horizontally, spatial relationships of objects can generally be more clearly expressed when they are oriented horizontally. Thus, in the case of parallel vertical lines our eyes clearly perceive the discrete opposition of the two lines. The opposite is true of parallel horizontal stripes. There, our eyes perceive the side to side successive continuity of a line. 
(I guess that phenomenon explains why I'm not so partial to French sailor shirts.)

The author then goes on to liken vertical stripes to light rain brought down by gravity or willow branches hanging down; conversely, he likens horizontal stripes to the heaviness of geologic strata. He sums up by saying: "horizontal stripes make an object look wider by directing our gaze side to side. Vertical stripes do the opposite, narrowing objects by directing our gaze up and down."

He does make some exceptions to this general rule; for example, a horizontally striped sash in tandem with a vertically striped kimono; or horizontal straps on sandals to offset a vertically running wood grain or lacquer.

Anyway, I'll have to write another post on the concept of iki — the author himself argues that it's not directly translatable into other languages, though smart, stylish, or chic are the approximations my dictionary gives.

The text, which originally appeared in the philosophy magazine Shisō (Thought) in 1930, has been translated by Hiroshi Nara and is nicely presented on facing pages in Japanese and English. I'm not sure of its availability outside of Japan as it appears that Kodansha International has gone extinct. Anyway, here's a link to Nara's web page at Pitt.

I'll try sharing some more nuggets from the book in the coming days — the notes are especially fascinating and informative.

As always, thanks for reading.


  1. Hari, bitai, akanuke? Yes, you'll have to write more. You'll also have to illustrate these concepts with the help of your camera. ^^

  2. I was feeling a bit too fagged last night after an all day hike to muster more. Have you read Kuki's work?