Why the colorful summer camp staple is making a comeback in 2019 !
Tie-dyed clothing, so easy to make with rubber bands and a few bottles of dye, is a style loaded with significance and associations. The designer Raquel Allegra, who has incorporated soft, muted tie-dye into her work for years, often asks herself whether a newly achieved effect is too “Berkeley mom.” (She knows the aesthetic well, having grown up in the California hippie haven during the 1970s.)
Compelled by nostalgia, Hillary Taymour started dressing in head-to-toe tie-dye last summer because she “wanted to look like a camp counselor”; recent collections for her brand, Collina Strada, have been packed with mottled sweatshirts, tees, and slip dresses, some of them exploding in a rainbow swirl of primary colors.
Vogue declared tie-dye one of the big trends of summer 2019, and over the past few seasons it has appeared everywhere from mass market brands like Something Navy and Urban Outfitters to the runways of Prada, Stella McCartney, and Michael Kors. Apparently motivated by tie-dye’s newfound fashion cachet, Starbucks started selling a “tie-dye Frappuccino” in July. In a nod to wellness culture, it’s colored with red beet, turmeric, and spirulina.
In the United States, tie-dye is closely associated with the 1960s counterculture — Woodstock, the Grateful Dead, psychedelia — and for those who came of age in the ensuing decades, with childhood craft projects. But its history is much longer than that. Tie-dye is a relatively easy, flexible technique that accommodates any number of aesthetics, and many cultures around the world — in India, China, Indonesia, and Nigeria, to name just a few — have made use of it for hundreds or thousands of years, resulting in regionally specific styles that go far beyond candy-colored twists.
Historians’ knowledge of early techniques similar to tie-dye is limited by the fact that textiles decay faster than most other artistic mediums, meaning surviving samples aren’t easy to come by. Some of the earliest examples come from Peru, but tie-dye seems to have originated independently all over the world, says Lee Talbot, curator of George Washington University’s Textile Museum. Trade spread it further: “[Chinese] pieces dating from the fifth to the sixth century AD have been found along trade routes as far as Egypt and Turkistan,” writes Shabd Simon-Alexander in Tie-Dye: Dye It, Wear It, Share It.
Tie-dye falls under the broader category of resist dyeing, with maneuvers like binding, twisting, and stitching to prevent dye from permeating certain parts of the fabric, thus creating a pattern. (With batik, another resist-dyeing process, the artist applies wax to the surface of the fabric instead.) Japanese shibori techniques create, among many other designs, spiderweb-like shapes, geometric patterns, and figurative shapes. Bandhani, from India, creates patterns from tiny pinched circles.
Tie-dye has been used in the United States since the early 20th century, writes Simon-Alexander, as a way for women to mimic French fabric styles or revivify old clothes. But above all else, it’s become an enduring symbol of the American counterculture. Like much of the movement’s visual and artistic output, tie-dye was “a challenge to the perceived drabness of ‘straight life,’” writes Chris Gair, a lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of Glasgow, in an email. It belongs to the same kaleidoscopic aesthetic as psychedelic light shows and graphic design, the technicolor bus driven by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and the dazzling colors experienced during acid trips.
Performers like Janis Joplin, John Sebastian, and Joe Cocker wore tie-dye onstage at Woodstock in 1969, cementing it as a key look at the iconic music festival. It had partially gotten there through corporate ingenuity: Rit Dye, which was struggling by the mid-1960s, asked artists to make (per the company itself) “several hundred tie-dye T-shirts to be sold at the festival.”
It’s also likely that Americans were seizing on other cultures’ traditions, as some designers overtly do today. (Louis Vuitton, Giles Deacon, and Proenza Schouler have all created shibori-inspired prints in the last decade.) One theory for tie-dye’s popularity in the 1960s is that Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa brought back the region’s sophisticated, longstanding tie-dye techniques, says Talbot. It’s also during this decade that the words plangi and tritik — two Indonesian tie-dye methods — started showing up in American craft literature.
From our vantage point, it might seem like everyone was wearing tie-dye in the late ’60s, from festivalgoers to Halston customers. But it didn’t swallow the fashion world whole, Gair says: “In a similar manner to the ‘Mohican’ haircut and punk later in the 1970’s, it was popular, but not pervasive. Its big attraction was that it was cheap, colourful and infinitely variable at a time when dominant culture was associated with standardisation and one-dimensionality.”
In the following years, tie-dye went mainstream and, as tastes changed, lost some of its cachet. Talbot recalls it being decidedly out of vogue when he was a college student in the 1980s.
“It was a very buttoned-down and preppy time,” he says. “We were rebelling against the counterculture.”
It never went away, though. By the early 2000s, when I was a pre-teen, it had become a mild-mannered symbol of the counterculture, the stuff of camp activities and children’s birthday parties: paper plates and napkins rippling with color and dotted with flowers, peace signs, and words like “Groovy!” As a teenager, I wore branded tie-dye T-shirts to my summer job scooping ice cream at the local Ben & Jerry’s franchise. The company, known for its friendly hippie attitude and social consciousness, had been bought by Unilever for $326 million several years before.
In 2016, tie-dye of an overtly countercultural bent started amassing a new kind of hype. That was the year that Online Ceramics, a T-shirt brand founded by Elijah Funk and Alix Ross, millennials and Grateful Dead fans, launched. Its shirts — cluttered with weird, opaque iconography and often tie-dyed — quickly became, per the New Yorker’s Naomi Fry, “beloved by the improbable subculture comprised of Deadhead streetwear fanatics.” That fanbase included John Mayer, who had joined up with former members of the Grateful Dead to form a spinoff band, Dead & Company, in 2015.
“With their grab bag of hippie, D.I.Y. punk, and hip-hop influences, Funk and Ross’s designs represent an apex of the fashion world’s search for authenticity,” Fry writes.
Tie-dye has also gotten a boost from the rising popularity of fashion that sits at the intersection of nostalgic, crunchy, and not especially cool — Tevas, Birkenstocks, fleece jackets — a character profile that has naturally made them very cool, because they’re not trying to be anything they’re not. Tie-dye is a similarly unpretentious medium. It forces you to accept the impossibility of perfection and encourages you to find delight in the unknown, since you can’t see what it is you’re creating.
“It’s always the mistakes that end up being the best part,” Simon-Alexander, who left fashion a few years ago to work in politics, tells me over the phone.
A mistake is exactly what got Raquel Allegra into tie-dye in the early days of her business. She was trying to dye some fabric a uniform color, but due to her inexperience ended up with something resembling tie-dye. She liked it even better. Allegra feels an intimate connection to the fabrics she works with, and seems quietly rhapsodic when she describes standing over a steaming vat of dye, letting the colors and fabric guide her creative process. Just as tie-dye provided an escape from uniformity in the ’60s, Allegra’s artisanal ethos is the opposite of designing clothing for fast, mass consumption.
“I think everyone is lonely,” she says, when I ask why people are gravitating toward tie-dye right now. “I think we’re craving human contact and evidence of human creativity.”
And then, of course, there’s the politics of it. The timing of this tie-dye resurgence, right when US politics has reached a discordant din, doesn’t seem incidental. As Simon-Alexander points out, “Our culture is going through an upheaval right now that’s not dissimilar to the late ’60s and ’70s.” Tie-dye feels like a call for change and, with its irrepressible colors, for purposeful optimism.