A History of Prison Stripes

From Looney Tunes to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? the image of a prisoner in a black and white striped uniform (with or without chain attached to the leg) is one that can be found throughout popular culture. So what is the story behind these prison stripes?

Christina Garton Apr 16, 2018 - 2 min read

A History of Prison Stripes Primary Image

The origin of the black-and-white-striped prison uniform goes back to the Auburn prison system that started in New York in the 1820s. In this system prisoners had to be silent, walk in “lockstep,” and they all wore black and white uniforms covered in stripes that symbolized prison bars. (On another fiber-related note, prisoners in Auburn also raised silkworms and wove silk cloth as part of their restitution.)

prison stripes

The uniforms made prisoners immediately recognizable as criminals, so if a prisoner escaped, the public could easily distinguish them from the non-criminal population. Eventually, by the mid-twentieth century, these prison stripes fell out of favor and solid-colored jumpsuits became the norm.

In recent years, though, the striped prison uniform has been making a comeback as more prisons are abandoning the orange jumpsuit. In fact, prison supplier Bob Barker (no relation to the former game show host) has a whole line of striped jumpsuits available in a rainbow of colors.

Published April 16, 2018 Revised April 26, 2022