The Right Stripes

Cabana stripes add coastal charm to every space they adorn—here’s how to use them in yours

The cheerful awnings on the Claremont Hotel are a classic green-and-white cabana stripe. The hotel’s creative director Krista Stokes points out that the solid seat cushions are used to temper the graphic stripes.
In this living room styled by Toussaint Derby, the lead designer at Havenly, an e-interior design service, a citrine striped throw pillow from The Inside pops against a blue floral sofa.
Nantucket-based designer Melanie Gowen gave some zip to a white-on-white summer house by architect Chip Webster with a punchy striped runner and a sunny yellow light fixture. The stripes within the red stripes soften the graphic design to make it blend more smoothly with the white-washed floors.
The design team at the Claremont Hotel didn’t stop the stripes at the awnings: They painted them right onto the siding of an outbuilding, as well—it’s an ingenious way to give an everyday garden shed a whole new look.

Picture crisp, wide stripes of white alternating with wide bands of color, and your mind is sure to drift to summer—think beach towels, sun umbrellas, and canvas awnings. These classic stripes are often called “cabana stripes,” hinting at their connection to beach clubs on the Riviera (not to mention the decks of hotels in midcoast Maine). There’s something about these stripes that summons a feeling of leisure and nostalgia—it’s no wonder people like them so well! 

“Indoors or out, a wide cabana stripe is always chic with a youthful edge. It makes a bold statement that feels coastal and summery,” says Rudy Saunders, a senior designer at Dorothy Draper and Company, a New York City–based interior design firm with a long love of cabana stripes. (Draper famously used them in the Greenbriar hotel in the 1940s).

Cabana stripes are also an enduring pattern: they will look just as relevant today as they will in 10 or 20 years’ time. “They are a classic design element for walls, upholstery, window treatments—really anywhere!” says Saunders. However, while stripes are a versatile decorating motif that even the amateur decorator can work with, a boldly striped surface like a cabana stripe calls attention to itself, so it’s important to get it right. We spoke to designers to get their insights on how to use cabana stripes in your home. Here’s their advice.

Get your stripe right.

Keep your lines vertical if you want to get the relaxed, resort vibes of a cabana stripe. While a horizontal stripe lends a room many of the same qualities as a vertical one, it doesn’t have the same strong association with vacation destinations as a vertically aligned design. Likewise, a true cabana stripe is white alternating with a single color. Once you start to have two or more colors together, you lose the crisp quality of a cabana stripe. (Though, of course, here at Maine Home+Design, we love stripes of all shapes and sizes!)

Use them to add fun.

“Cabana stripes make a space feel so happy!” enthuses Saunders. Krista Stokes, creative director of the boutique Maine hotel group Atlantic Holdings, agrees, noting, “Cabana stripes are silly and sophisticated at the same time. They’re a little circus, a performance, but they also say, ‘You can relax.’” As such, cabana stripes are a great choice for a vacation home and especially for spaces devoted to leisure; they are very much at home on the porch or by the pool.

Add just a touch.

“I prefer to use cabana stripes in very contained ways—a single side chair, an upholstered bench, a Roman shade—rather than bigger statements such as an entire sofa or area rug,” says New York–based interior designer Whitney Beatty. Using just a small amount of a bold stripe offers “that hit of coastal preppy style in a tidy colorway without going over-the-top into banal beach themes,” she adds.

Balance a bold stripe.

If you want to use cabana stripes in a bigger way, then let almost everything else be quiet. “We temper [cabana stripes] with some solids, or work in some florals or vintage patterns,” says Stokes. For example, if you do a bold striped rug, maybe you opt for a solid sofa, or if your walls are getting treated to stripes, keep the carpet and upholstery subdued. 

Shake up a stiff room. 

“For the pattern-shy, stripes are always the safest bet,” says Beatty. “Cabana stripes instantly add a crisp look to any space.” Beatty notes that they bring visual interest without overwhelming and “can add a taste of comfortable informality to an otherwise traditional space.” If you want something subtle, look to lower-contrast colors like white and a pastel stripe.

Paint on a pattern.

Another advantage of a cabana stripe is that it’s relatively easy to DIY, and paint is accessible to everyone. With some patience and masking tape, you can paint your own stripes, especially in a small room. Adding painted stripes to an interior of a closet or even a dresser drawer adds a touch of hidden whimsy to a room.

Look up!

“I particularly love incorporating cabana stripes on an angled ceiling,” says Saunders. “It gives the illusion of a fabulous, tented space.” Sarah Cole, the principal designer at Sarah Cole Interiors in Newton, Massachusetts, especially loves a striped ceiling in a child’s room. “A lot of kids want a super bright color, but that can quickly take over. A bold cabana stripe on the ceiling is a way of incorporating a child’s love of color that is clean, unexpected, and gives a sophisticated yet kid-friendly look.” Cole suggests you keep the walls a pale neutral to balance the boldness above. One thing to note: painting a striped ceiling is best left to the pros!

Pair stripes with florals.

Many of the designers we spoke to suggested pairing stripes with florals because their loose and organic nature contrasts beautifully with the rigid and linear. “Cabana stripes are so easy to layer with other patterns you have in a room,” says Saunders. For example, she suggests, if you have floral bedding, add an accent pillow with a cabana stripe for a quick update. Stokes too has used florals and cabana stripes together often.

Trick out a small space.

“Don’t be afraid to use a cabana stripe in a smaller space,” says Saunders. “Painting or wallpapering a bathroom wall with a cabana stripe can really create a major wow factor in an otherwise utilitarian setting.” As a bonus, striped wallpaper patterns are often more affordable than other more elaborate prints.

Wake up your windows.

Often found on awnings or tents, cabana stripes are a natural choice for shades or drapery. These stripes look stylish on both a structured Roman shade and a loose, puddled curtain. Choose a color that coordinates with your room’s existing palette, and you can’t go wrong.

The History of Cabana Stripes

In modern times, stripes most often symbolize freedom (think of the U.S. flag designed during the Revolution) and fun (think of a carnival tent), but the history of the stripe is long and storied indeed, dating back to medieval times, when stripes were worn by criminals and prostitutes. Since the nineteenth century, stripes have had a strong nautical tie. Worn by sailors so they might be more easily seen if they fell overboard, the Breton stripe became the official uniform of the French Navy in 1858. At the same time, stripes infiltrated the world of seaside leisure. The paintings of Eugène Boudin and other French landscape painters reveal striped canvas tents, bathing suits, and parasols. “Over the course of the decades, the seaside stripe, having become the stripe of vacations and summer, no longer has only to do with sailors’ clothing and bathers’ health. It has taken over the world of leisure, games and sports, childhood and youth,” writes Michel Pastoureau in the book The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric. By the eve of World War I, “There is no longer a beach in temperate Europe that hasn’t become a veritable theater for stripes,” Pastoreau continues. For the past hundred years, cabana stripes have been used by hotels across the globe, and today they are synonymous with relaxing times.  

The interior design firm Dorothy Draper & Company has long been known for its love of stripes. In this bedroom by the firm, the ceiling is striped in orange and white to look like a tent. A bright blue border on the bedding repeats the stripe pattern.

A Timeline of Striped Style

1846: Queen Victoria is often credited with kicking off the nautical stripe fashion trend when she dresses her son in a sailor suit, but the portrait of the prince reveals that stripes are just a small detail on the mostly white costume.

1858: The “Breton stripe” is officially born when the French Navy issues navy-and-white-striped uniforms that feature 21 stripes—one for each of Napoleon’s victories, as legend has it.

1948: Dorothy Draper’s redesign of the Greenbrier Resort hotel includes bold stripes, including a green-and-white-striped lobby.

1950: Robert Doisneau photographs Picasso in a Breton-stripe shirt.

1955: Both James Dean and Cary Grant appear in films (Rebel without a Cause and To Catch a Thief) wearing navy-and-white-striped shirts.