‘Striped surfaces are rarely found in nature. When man encounters them, he… sometimes fears them (… in the Middle Ages), sometimes admires them (…our contemporary attitude).
‘Everywhere red and white stripes abound, warning of danger, recommending caution, forbidding this of that access. Caution, workers! Slow, detour, stop, obey: in the street and on the road, thse ar the kinds of direct and indirect messages all red and white striped signs send us. The combination of these two colours, that of interdiction and that of tolerance brings out fully here the stripes’ ambivalence: it is guide and obstacle at once, filter and gate.
In certain cases, it is possible to pass, respecting various constraints; in others, it is imperative to stop. That is so at lowered grade crossings, border posts, or when coming upon a police barricade. All are indicated by a profusion of red and white stripes, which not only can be seen from far off- probably, today, what can be seen from the very farthest off – but also provoke a certain agitation, indeed even a real fear. Behind this kind of stripe, danger always lurks. And, along with danger, authority – danger of another sort – embodies by the police, the state patrol, or the customes office. A stripe often leads to a uniform, and the uniform to a penalty.
Thus most of these red and white stripes used on traffice signs function as screens. They are some sort of shorthand image for a doorway or fence that can only be crossed under certain conditions. A imple red adn white striped horizontal line placed across the road (which sometimes embodies a grade crossing) has the same effect as a huge gate, which could be striped with the same colours and located in the same place. Here we can discern an essential feature of how the stripe functions: metonymically.
The stripe is a structure that infinitely repeats. Whether it appears on a tiny surface or one of great dimensions, its properties remain the same. The part is as good as the whole, the structure takes precendence over the form. From which we get the extraordinary plasticity of the uses for the stripe and, over the course of the centureis, its continual employment as mark, sign, insignia, emblem, attribute, whatever the medium, technique, or context.’
from the devil’s cloth: michel pastoureau, ©1991
university of columbia press, new york
2001 translation by jody gladding