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The periodic stripes and spots that often adorn animals’ coats have been largely viewed as self-organizing patterns, forming through dynamics such as Turing’s reaction-diffusion within the developing skin. Whether preexisting positional information also contributes to the periodicity and orientation of these patterns has, however, remained unclear. We used natural variation in colored stripes of juvenile galliform birds to show that stripes form in a two-step process. Autonomous signaling from the somite sets stripe position by forming a composite prepattern marked by the expression profile of agouti. Subsequently, agouti regulates stripe width through dose-dependent control of local pigment production. These results reveal that early developmental landmarks can shape periodic patterns upstream of late local dynamics, and thus constrain their evolution.