Wednesday, August 25, 2010




: of, relating to, or suggesting a jail or prison

In film school we talked a lot about incriminating light, specifically during discussions of film noir—the genre that pioneered the gratuitous use of high and low key contrast lighting. I'm thinking most notably of the CARCERAL "light through the blinds casting striped shadows on a subject" technique, reminiscent of the shadows cast by a wall of iron bars. The interpretation? Guilty.

Black and white stripes are often considered a symbol of incarceration. American inmates sported the look (horizontal stripes) until 1904 when the uniform was deemed a civil iniquity ("a badge of shame"). Hitler revived the look in the forties as the uniform (vertical stripes) made its way to prisoners in Nazi camps. The uniform's CARCERAL roots are muddled in contemporary fashion, however, as the pattern is now commonly associated with referees, waitresses at suburban sports bars, and teenage girls who shop at Hot Topic.

The earliest implementation of the prison striped uniform (at least, that I can locate within the limitations of the electric info-box) traces back to New York's Auburn State Prison, which opened its doors in 1819. Auburn was the predecessor of the more infamous Sing Sing, which apparently set all the trends in prison stereotypes, including the striped uniform. Why they chose stripes in the first place, I am unclear. I'm guessing because of their conspicuous nature (which explains why modern prison uniforms are BRIGHT ORANGE).

I've always enjoyed the black and white stripe, although I'm not sure what started my inclination toward this pattern. It may have had something to do with Halloween—my favorite holiday as a child (and an adult), and the stripes are easily associated with those festivities. If that wasn't it, Michael Keaton's portrayal of Beetlejuice sealed the deal. I have been known to gravitate toward b&w striped items of clothing and accessories (although I now steer clear of tights and such, lest I be grouped in with the Hot Topic crowd).

Recently I went to an ultra-modern-frozen-yogurt-buffet-style-den-of-sweet-insanity called Swirl. There were about 3,742 options, and I settled on vanilla with chocolate chips, chocolate sprinkles and whipped cream. I was with a therapist friend, so of course we began to psychoanalyze our choices. I laughed while observing my bowl of sugary goodness was entirely black and white. Perhaps I can attribute my affinity toward this non-color combo as a manifestation of my tendency to simplify everything into clear terms, or, at least, my undying attempts to do so.

The CARCERAL use of stripes may actually be more just than something like BRIGHT ORANGE. Orange can suggest warning, danger, caution (I'm thinking construction zone here). Black and white, on the other hand, is just honest; it says: there's a good and a bad side here, which also means there's a choice.

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