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Earned Stripes

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Captain Malcolm Reynolds: Beg pardon, but would you be Warrick Harrow?
Sir Warrick Harrow: Sir Warrick Harrow. The sash.
Mal: [blankly] The sash.
Sir Warrick: It indicates lordhood.
Mal: And it's... It's doing a great job.

Sometimes when a person is acknowledged for their deeds or their mastery, they are given a means to tell everyone at a glance. When you literally 'earn your stripes,' you get a physical change in appearance that indicates your rank.

Usually this is a costume change like a new uniform. If not a whole new outfit, then a subtle change of accessory, or another customization can do the trick. Other times it may be a bodily change like ritual scars, tattoos, or a haircut. They can be bestowed in an Awesome Moment of Crowning or graduation ceremony.

Earning them may be done by proving your valor in a real life situation, or passing a controlled set of trials and exams. Rookies look forward to the day they can wear them. We may follow a character as they go through the process, and learn the meaning behind the stripes instead of just idolizing the appearance and perks. Pride at proving themselves worthy of stripes is often its own reward.

The point is when you see a person wearing these stripes you know they demand respect. And wearing them without earning them properly is a social taboo, extremely disrespectful, and can even be a Berserk Button for members of the culture. Similarly earning them and refusing to wear them is a major symbolic rebuke to the ones bestowing it.

Supertrope to Color-Coded Patrician, and Hat of Authority. Often overlaps with Prestige Class. Compare Power Makeover when the power itself causes the transformation rather than ritual. Contrast Slave Brand, where a mark is given to indicate that you're lower on the totem pole, and is often by forced on rather than granted by merit. See Insignia Rip-Off Ritual for when the stripes are no longer deserved, regardless of which side does it.

Needless to say, this trope overlaps heavily with Field Promotion.


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     Anime and Manga  

  • Naruto: Ninja recognized by their clan for graduating the academy are given headbands, a piece of cloth with a metal plate that has their nation's symbol engraved on it. The traditional use is a forehead protector, but it's been used as a belt, necklace, armband etc. Missing Nin who are no longer recognized by their clan will either strike through the symbol or stop wearing it entirely.
    • The first episode focused on the title character's feeling of neglect when he was the only one in his class not to earn a headband and be praised by his parents. He then defies all expectations and earns one by perfecting a master-level version of the basic technique he failed at.
    • Further, only ninja ranked Chunin or higher can wear the greenish flak jackets. Shikamaru, being the only one of his class to pass the Chunin Exams, first wears it during the Sasuke Retrieval mission. After the time skip a few others have chosen to wear it too.
  • Downplayed in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Misato gets promoted from captain to major, but doesn't say anything about it. Only Kensuke, a military otaku, notices the change in her ranks, and Shinji is surprised when he congratulates her on it.

    Comic Books 
  • Alien vs. Predator: The symbol of (presumably, we see a few different insignia) the Clan etched in the Aliens' acid blood on the brow is a mark of a Predator having completed a rite of passage by successfully hunting Aliens, becoming an adult in their culture and earning the right to hunt other game. At the end of the comic, Predator leader Broken Tusk marks human Machiko Noguchi in the same way, indicating she has earned her stripes by the codes of his people. This mark allows Machiko, in other AVP media, to serve as a liason between humanity and the Predators.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: When Steve Trevor goes from USAAF captain to USAAF major the insignia on his uniform change accordingly.

    Fan Works 
  • Rocketship Voyager. While Captain Janeway is forced to give former Space Commander Chakotay his rank back to get the help of his Maquis rebels, she refuses to promote B'Elanna Torres to Chief Engineer because a) she's a civilian and b) she doesn't appear to have the temperament for command. However at the end of the story, B'Elanna is wearing the uniform of a Tech Lieutenant (j.g.) after proving her abilities as an engineer under fire, and designing a Faster-than-Light drive that can get them back to Earth.

  • The Incredible Mr. Limpet. At the beginning of the movie Henry Limpet's brother-in-law George Stickle has just been promoted to Machinist's Mate Second Class in the U.S. Navy, and shows off the stripes on his uniform sleeve to Henry. He receives a promotion to Chief Petty Officer during the course of the film and does it again.
  • The Mummy Trilogy: The Medjai order have tattoos that denote their being part of the order and where they stand in it.
  • Star Wars: Humans (and aliens with human like hair) wear rat-tails as padawans. When they are promoted to Jedi Knight the rat-tail is cut off and they're free to wear their hair however they want to. Though we don't see the process in the films themselves, in Episode I Obi-Wan has the padawan haircut, which Anakin wears in the last scene. By Episode II Anakin still has it and Obi-Wan doesn't. And by Episode III they've both grown their hair out.
  • Subverted in Good Morning, Vietnam, where Sergeant Major Dickerson (Army) tries to intimidate Airman Cronauer (Air Force):
    Dickerson: Do you see anything on this uniform indicating an officer? (Points to his rank insignia) What does three up and three down mean to you, airman?
    Cronauer: End of an inning?
  • Discussed in The Karate Kid (1984). Daniel's Eccentric Mentor Kesuke Miyagi is an Old Master of classical Japanese karate, having learned it as a child on Okinawa before immigrating to the US before World War II, but is dismissive of American martial arts sports' use of belt color to denote skill level. At the tournament he only describes Daniel as a black belt to get him past the door, since it's only open to brown belt or above.
    Daniel: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
    Miyagi: Canvas. J.C. Penny. Three ninety-eight. You like. (laughs)
    Daniel: No, I meant...
    Miyagi: In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.

  • Ciaphas Cain:
    • The short story "Sector 13" ends with one of the Mauve Shirt guardsmen who were accompanying Cain complaining about his newly-earned stripes (as he doesn't think they feel right), but is reassured when Cain points out he'll soon manage to lose them.
    • In another, he mentions a commissar from a different regiment with a feather on his Commissar Cap, usually signifying a successful airborne operation. Whether this means the commissar actually did so or is appropriating the regiment's traditions, Cain doesn't know.
  • In Nomads of Gor the men of the Wagon Peoples earn scars which are then worked into their faces by professional scar-makers, each scar colored to signify something. The first is the red Courage scar, no other scars may be earned until you get that one.
  • In the Heralds of Valdemar series, graduates of the Collegium usually get a costume change. Heraldic students go from grey uniform to white, Healer trainees go from pale green to deep green, and Bardic students go from rust-red to bright red. Earning your Whites, Greens, or Scarlets marks you at least a junior rank of the class, even if you still need to do an internship period.
  • Within the Midlands cultures in the Sword of Truth series, hair length indicates social status, at least for women. In this case, the longer, the higher rank. Extremely powerful women like the Mother Confessor have hair that risks brushing the ground.
  • The Wheel of Time:
    • The Aes Sedai and Aiel Wise Ones both have shawls that identify one as a fully-trained initiate.
    • Cairhienin nobility wear horizontal slashes on their clothing. The selection of colors indicates their house affiliation, and the number of slashes shows their rank.
    • The Seanchan change their hair to indicate inclusion in the "Blood", those who claim to be descendants of the last great empire-builder. Low Blood shave their temples, high Blood shave one whole side of their heads, and members of the royal family are completely bald. When someone loses rank, which happens often, they have to cover their head until some of the hair grows back. Similarly, they paint specific fingernails in their House colours to indicate their rank.
    • Inverted with certain mainland military units that came to serve under the Seanchan after the Seanchan conquered them. The Seanchan added brightly colored patches to the garb of troublesome or undisciplined units, which they thought was this, but was actually a warning to anyone around them that they were unreliable and too stupid to be trusted.
    • The Sharans, seen only in the last book, use tattoos on the back to indicate rank, both military and social, since they are a militaristic society. All clothing and armor has a hole in the back to expose this tattoo. The combination of these facts mean a leader must be a Frontline General in order to be recognized, and soldiers put themselves at risk if they try to run away. Moreover, larger and more complex tattoos signify lower ranks, meaning status can only be lost, never gained.
  • In the Star Wars Legends expanded universe, the stripes down the sides of Han Solo's trousers are said to be Corellian Bloodstripes, marking him as a recipient of one of his home planet's highest honors for courage under fire.
    • The Bloodstripes are referenced again in X-Wing Series, where someone questions how Han Solo can have earned Bloodstripes and not Wedge Antilles, who is the most decorated fighter pilot ever. Wedge points out that while he may or may not have been brave enough, he wasn't military enough; the Bloodstripes are a military award, and he joined the Rebel Alliance off the bat instead of getting training in the Corellian military and then defecting, like most Corellian rebels.
  • Kris Longknife: Kris gets battlefield promotions in both of the first two books, with Admiral Crossenshield pulling her new insignia out of a drawer. Several years later in Emissary, Kris pulls rank on the Armchair Military admiral commanding her escort when he makes a foolish decision, noting "there are five stars on my flag to your three."
  • In Temeraire, when Laurence becomes captain of the dragon Temeraire and therefore must resign his post as navy captain, he removes his captain's epaulettes and gives one to his lieutenant Riley (the other can be worn only after three years as captain). This signals a change in authority even before it can be legally done. (This doesn't quite count as an Insignia Ripoff Ritual, because Laurence himself removed the epaulettes and it was not intended to be humiliating to him.)
  • In The Da Vinci Code it's claimed chevrons are actually phallic symbols, so the more penises you have on you the higher-ranked you are.
  • Discworld:
    • In The Fifth Elephant, when Sergeant Colon is promoted to Acting-Captain, he adds a pip to his uniform sleeve in chalk, which is mistaken for bird droppings by Reg. This gets called back to twice: firstly when one of the Watch's Instant Messenger Pigeons is described as promoting Colon further, and again at the end, when Captain Carrot's return leads Colon to claim this himself, rather than hold the bag for what's happened to the Watch while Carrot's been away.
    • In Night Watch when Vimes goes back in time and takes the role of John Keel, he points out that he's a Sergeant-at-Arms, which means he gets a crown over his stripes. Vimes hates pulling rank (and, if it comes to that, crowns) but he needs all the advantages he can get.
    • Captains in the Watch are also entitled to have a plume in their helmet, but Vimes hates plumes, and Carrot follows his commander's lead in this.

     Live Action TV  
  • By the end of Adam-12, Pete Malloy was promoted to Officer III (two stripes) and then appointed Officer III+1 (the addition of a star), indicating his status as senior lead officer in the district, with all other officers looking to him for guidance when there's no one more senior present.
  • In the Firefly episode "Shindig", Mal crashes a high society ball on Persephone to make contact with a local nobleman for a smuggling job, and is rather testily informed that the red sash that Sir Warrick Harrow wears marks his status as a lord.
  • M*A*S*H
    • In one episode a nurse with the rank of sergeant is given an unofficial, honorary field promotion to 2nd Lieutenant for the last three weeks of his tour of duty. Major Houlian donates her old Lieutenant bars to pin on him.
    • In a late episode Klinger earns a promotion from Corporal to Sergeant and has a brand new set of stripes on his arm.
    • Averted with Hawkeye, who absolutely refuses to wear his Captain's bars on a day to day basis. In fact, he donates them to Father Mulcahy when the chaplain is promoted to Captain.
    • Invoked in order to get Radar into an officers' club. Hawkeye sticks one of BJ Hunicutt's set of Captain's bars onto Radar's hat. Radar protests that it won't work, since he's still wearing his own Corporal stripes on his shirt, so Hawkeye makes up a cover story that they're trialing a new rank of Corporal-Captain. Indeed, this combination elicits some strange looks from an officer sitting at the bar.
  • Power Rangers / Super Sentai: The leader of a ranger team almost always has a red uniform. Certain members of the team have earned it through their actions, Tommy being the first to come to mind. The series sometimes subverts the earning it part with Rookie Red Rangers however, and on at least one occasion Red was an ordinary member and White (also Tommy) outranked him. Another notable exception is Uchu Sentai Kyuranger, where the team leader Shou Ronpo is violet instead of red and wears a unique variant of the team uniform with a symmetrical version of the team's emblem and a Badass Longcoat. In their unpowered forms, most of the kyrangers wear simple uniforms that are dark blue, silver, and their own color, but Shou Ronpo wears a fancy outfit with a high collar, which originally was worn by the previous leader of the rebellion, and which he later passes to Stinger at the end of the show.
  • Star Trek
    • In Star Trek: The Original Series, officers wear stripes on their sleeves to denote rank.
    • Media beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation denote a Starfleet officer's rank by the number of collar pips, from a single gold pip for an ensign to four pips for a captain. Admirals wear two sets of pips on a rectangular plate with a gold border (one plate on each side of the collar), and starting with Star Trek: First Contact they get a more elaborate uniform jacket with gold piping.
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
      • Bajoran Militia rank insignia consists of a collar pin of Bajor's insignia, with segments removed or added for lower- and higher-ranked personnel. Generals have epaulets added to the standard uniform.
      • Rank-and-file Cardassian soldiers have a bare black uniform. Guls (roughly equivalent to a Starfleet captain or rear admiral) have a panel of Cardassian script on the right side of the breastplate. Legates (similar to a 4-star) have the text and a Cardassian insignia on the left side of the breastplate.
      • Chief O'Brien, a senior Starfleet non-commissioned officer, starts out uniquely wearing only a single black pip. Later in the series he's given a unique collar badge inspired by real-life naval chief petty officer insignias, with three stripes and two dots indicating his actual rank to be senior chief petty officer (E-8).
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • Samantha Carter is promoted twice during the series (from captain to major to lieutenant colonel) with an on-screen ceremony where her old rank insignia is removed and the new one applied.
    • No one makes a big deal of it, but Sergeant Harriman (aka "Walter") goes from being a US Air Force Master Sergeant (E-7) to a Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) and by the end of the series' run, he's become Chief Master Sergeant, making him the senior non-commissioned officer at Cheyenne Mountain. His shoulder stripes change each time to match his new rank. Despite his rank, O'Neill usually referred to him by his first name, and Mitchell called him "Sarge". Either is inappropriate, but accurate of the treatment of non-coms by officers.
  • Bob Brown from The Unit was promoted from Staff Sergeant to Sergeant First Class and had a small promotion ceremony where Colonel Ryan ripped off his old insignia and stuck on the new one, with a playful light punch to the chest to signify the joy of the occasion (in the pre-PC days of insignia pins, the punch would have been much harder and delivered with the intention of drawing blood).
  • Dad's Army: In "A. Wilson (Manager)?", when Sergeant Wilson is promoted to Lieutenant of the Eastgate platoon, he supposedly walks around town in officer's uniform trying to find servicemen to salute him. Due to a paperwork mix-up, every other member of the platoon (except Pike) receives a letter telling him he has been promoted to sergeant. They all show up at parade wearing sergeant's stripes and Hilarity Ensues.

     Tabletop Games  
  • Paranoia adventure Alpha Complexities. If the PC Troubleshooters manage to obtain evidence of the treasonous activities of the High Programmer Iwant-U-DED-5 and kill him, their briefing officer Jed-I-OBI-1 will be promoted to Ultraviolet level and put on a white robe to show his new security clearance.
  • Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer:
    • While very few forces of Chaos use standardized uniforms, it's a safe bet that the more outlandish mutations a Chaos character has, the higher favor he holds with the dark gods (for example, Slaaneshi cultists with a half-male half-female chest are held in high esteem). However, accumulating too many can turn him into a gibbering Chaos Spawn, a near-useless combat unit.
    • While the Imperial Guard uses something like modern military rank insignia (albeit with a lot more Bling of War), the Space Marines use their own, but generally the higher up they are the more gold there is on their armor. Space Marines even have service studs embedded on their faces, one for every century of service.
    • While Orks have indicators of rank like amount of defeated enemy heads on their spikes, the easiest way to tell who's in charge is through size. Humans confused them for a while until they learned to target the one wearing the biggest hat.

     Video Games  
  • The Command & Conquer series uses a Veteran Unit system where units gain first one stripe (veteran), then two (elite), then a star (heroic). Heroic units also have red projectiles.
  • Dalish elves in Dragon Age earn vallaslin ("blood writing") when they complete their rites of adulthood. These are facial tattoos that each correspond to a different god in the Dalish pantheon — it's not known who chooses what tattoos they receive. As revealed in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the practice actually originated with upper-class elves tattooing their slaves in devotion to a particular deity.
  • F 19 Stealth Fighter displayed the player's formal uniform at the end of each mission. Depending on actions taken by the player, increasing ranks and earned medals are displayed on the uniform.
  • GreedFall:
    • The Nauts as a guild operate using this system with facial tattoos. The more tattoos a Naut has, the greater their life experience and the higher their rank is.
    • Upon completing the Loyalty Mission assigned to him, Vasco earns a new tattoo for his experience to add to the ones already on his face. In certain epilogues, he is shown with a few more tattoos after being promoted to Fleet Commander.
  • Finishing Journey (2012) for the first three times will place progressively fancier decorations on your avatar's robe, letting other players recognize you as a seasoned traveler. The White Robe is awarded for finding all glowing symbols, indicating to everyone that you know this game in and out. A version of And Your Reward Is Clothes that's visible to other players online.
  • Star Trek Online
    • Reaching the rank of rear admiral, lower half as a Starfleet Player Character unlocks a waistcoat in your uniform selection.
    • The official version of the Odyssey style puts admirals in a longer version of the uniform jacket that does not get tucked into the pants, and gives them metallic braid at the cuffs and around the divisional color bar. They also wear a belt buckle of the Federation's starfield-and-laurels insignia. Meanwhile starship and station commanders wear a version of the officer service uniform that has white shoulders, whereas ordinary officers get dark grey. Another color combination denotes enlisted personnel.
    • The Klingon Defense Force denotes ranks with progressively more elaborate metal sashes. The Romulan Republic uses pauldrons and capes of increasing complexity.

  • In Hero Oh Hero, the suspiciously video-gamelike Dungeon Crawls which Raulians use to gather resources have classes which individuals can level up in. Getting a new level in a given class leads to a snazzier colour scheme, as Sari demonstrates.
  • Yumi's Cells has a variation. Normally, Cells all wear identical-colored jumpsuits, but when a Cell becomes their person's most important emotion/feeling, they upgrade into a Prime Cell. Primes are generally told apart by their unique, non-jumpsuit outfits, which are also personalized and multicolored.

     Western Animation  
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, when airbenders are recognized as masters they are give blue arrow tattoos that follow chi lines from their forehead, to their hands and feet. Aang was one of the youngest to ever wear tattoos at age 12, until his granddaughter Jinora earned them at age 11 in The Legend of Korra.
  • Inverted in the "Private Bugs Bunny" short "Forward March Hare" where his Drill Sergeant Nasty gets demoted throughout the course of the film due to Bugs' incompetence. As the film goes on we see fewer and fewer stripes on his sleeve. By the end he's a Drill Private Nasty.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Some hairless characters invoke the system through jewelry. Ahsoka wore a line of beads on her head that emulated the rat-tail, and removed them when she was expelled from the order.

     Real Life  
  • Military ranks often come with literal stripes on the sleeve and shoulder of their uniform as well as badges. For instance Naval ranks are indicated from low tiers like Ensign (one medium stripe) and Lieutenant Junior (one medium and one thin) to Fleet Admiral (one thick and four medium).
    • In addition to the enlisted rank chevrons, the United States Army has the Overseas Service Bar, with each one representing six months of service in a combat zone.
    • Most navies have separate entire uniforms for junior and senior enlisted rates. Reaching a particular rank, usually Petty Officer, Chief Petty Officer, or equivalent, depending on which country you're in, entitles a sailor to upgrade from "Square Rig" to "Fore And Aft Rig". Generally speaking, the difference is a traditional sailor suit for lower ranks and a more practical (and comfortable) shirt and tie affair for more senior rates.
  • Martial arts schools sometimes use belt systems to indicate rank. Usually from white belts being basic trainees and black belts being masters. White being the absolute beginner rank is true of European and US schools, but not in Japan, where newbies start out with a light blue belt and white is the next rank up.
    • Some old masters revert to wearing a white belt as a way of symbolizing that they've taught everything they can and now it's time for them to become students once again.
  • In many Native American tribes warriors had to earn their eagle (or other high-status) feathers.
  • Skydivers habitually wear the parachute closing pin as necklace. The unofficial rule is that one may wear it only after his or her first free fall. Wearing one signifies one has passed the elementary training and is dedicated to the sports.
  • In Chinese elementary and secondary schools, student prefects are generally marked with red stripes on their uniforms. The ranks go from one stripe (class prefect), to two (grade prefect), and generally top off at three (head student). So wearing ''five'' stripes is generally considered grounds for some heavy mockery.
  • In the Boy Scouts of America, which follows a pseudo-military styling, one's rank is indicated by a badge worn on the breast pocket. Increasing in rank generally requires completing a set of tasks and going up for review by higher-ranking Scouts (for the lower ranks) or the adult leaders (for higher ones). Like the military service bars, other adornments can also be earned.