The Return of Tie-Dye: Nostalgia, Idealism, Uncertainty
Splatters, circles, and acid brights highlight the parallels between the instability and transformation of the 1960s and today’s cultural climate.
Mention tie-dye and many people’s first associations – my own included – might include memories of buckets and rubber bands, with white t-shirts (or other garments) trussed up and plunged into inky depths, the final results anxiously awaited while the fabric dried. A mainstay of many a summer afternoon or DIY party activity for several generations of children, all things rippling and rainbow still conjure up a very particular nostalgia. A recent one, at that.
It’s a nostalgia that plenty of designers have been tapping into once again these last few seasons though, from Prada’s demure long skirts and silk satin jackets to Proenza Schouler’s denim and R13’s full technicolor suit. However, it’s not just childhood crafting that’s being invoked in these high fashion re-workings of familiar techniques. Instead, the creeping (or should that be seeping?) return of tie-dye onto catwalks and collections over the last year or so has signaled a return to a whole range of reference points, from ancient crafting methods to sixties counterculture to nineties surfers.
What to take from this renewed interest in splatters, circles, and acid brights? It helps, perhaps, to start with the technique’s history. The origins of tie-dye are both old and manifold. It’s part of a larger textiles practice stretching back hundreds (and potentially thousands) of years known as resist-dyeing, which involves making patterns on fabric by obstructing dye from reaching certain parts of the surface: whether by use of a dye-resistant wax or paste, stitching, or in the case of tie-dye, twisting and binding. With examples found in countries including Nigeria, China, Indonesia, and Peru, as well as Japan’s traditionally indigo shibori and India’s intricate bandhani, tie-dye’s origins can be traced back through numerous cultures and continents.
Its emergence in the West was much more recent: the sixties heralding a new status for tie-dye, particularly in the United States, where it was adopted in droves by those drawn to the decade’s clarion calls for alternative living. Quickly becoming a sartorial symbol of counterculture, it fitted in neatly with the surrounding swirl of acid trips, psychedelic artwork, and rainbow-bright pop references, as well as hippies’ particular interest in non-Western and indigenous clothing (which comes with its own complex questions about cultural appropriation).
The explosive popularity of tie-dye was epitomized by the three day Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York in 1969. On stage performers including Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker wore it: the former clad in cosmic whorls of color and long strings of beads, the latter pairing his tie-dyed top with striped trousers. Off-stage, one enterprising company was capitalizing on this new zeal for color by selling hundreds of tie-dyed t-shirts made by artists to the festival-goers. The company? Rit Dye. Their fortunes had turned in the mid-1960s as they switched out their previously boxed powders with new, easy-to-use squeezable liquid dyes. Soon they would be putting out ads featuring jewel bright scarves, proclaiming, “These splashing, flashing, expensive-looking prints can be yours for the incredibly small price of a little bit of Rit Dye. Because you don’t buy – you tie-dye!”
What Rit so effectively tapped into both at Woodstock and elsewhere was the decade’s desire for sartorial individuality: the ability to make clothes stand as a riposte to a homogenous mainstream. Particularly clothes that could be customized swiftly at a low cost. It spoke, too, to the counterculture’s DIY (often explicitly anti-capitalist) ethos, offering the very singular satisfaction of hand-making and wearing a one-of-a-kind creation.
It was also a hit among the higher fashion echelons, with Halston and other designers quickly taking inspiration from the technique. But over the next decade or two, its influence waned slightly (though fans of The Grateful Dead did much to try and keep it alive). In the late eighties and earlier nineties it returned in a different guise: associated not only with the kids’ crafty handiwork but also with a new generation of acid house ravers, as well as a very particular breed of high school slacker, maybe with a skateboard slung over his shoulder.
Why the return now though? What does it say about our current moment that designers have once again embraced these intricate, often loaded, bursts of color? Plenty of recent analysis has focused on the parallels between the instability and transformation of the 1960s, and today’s bleak cultural climate. There’s some obvious credence to this. Where those in the sixties existed during an era of political assassinations, the Cold War, Vietnam, and a rapidly expanding civil rights movement, today we are contending with the terrifying surge in far-right nationalism, uncertain job markets, the ongoing refugee crisis, and the tug between terror and apathy in face of an impending climate apocalypse.
It’s tempting in the face of such great change (and great fear) to suggest designers are deliberately drawing on countercultural aesthetics in order to echo previous generations facing doubt and uncertainty. And no doubt there’s something alluring in the images of carefree festival-goers at Woodstock, sticking up two fingers to convention under sunny skies.
However, as demonstrated in the backlash against Gucci’s pre-fall 2018 collection campaign, inspired by the 1968 Paris student protests and dubbed ‘Gucci in the Streets’, the relationship between rebellion and high fashion isn’t always a comfortable fit (while a tie-dyed t-shirt stamped with Gucci’s logo proves, if anything, the impossibility of really reconciling counterculture with luxury branding.) And as much as this current wave of interest can be tied to a renewed emphasis on hand-crafting and artisanal design, many of the designs on offer are still mass-produced.
There are perhaps other types of rebellion tie-dye and its ilk taps into though. It spans not just the summer of love – long hair, big ideals, Jimi Hendrix and all – but those various other iterations too. It suggests carefree warehouse clubbing and salt-tousled days at the beach and a particularly Californian kind of allure. It exists alongside other examples of fresh flirtation with the nineties’ ‘bad taste’ (see also: thick-soled trainers, jelly shoes, bumbags, chokers, bucket hats). It forms a maximalist, eye-catching rejoinder to anything too neutral or normcore. Arguably, it slips in amongst the mainstreaming of tarot reading, crystals and witchcraft too, existing as both a pretty visual and thread to those who still wish to celebrate their summer solstice at Stonehenge (see Aries’ recent collaboration with Jeremy Deller by way of example.) If done sensitively, it can pay tribute to those many centuries of textiles skills developed all over the world too. And yes, sometimes it’s still reminiscent of some diluted dye, (maybe) some stained fingers, and the joy of giving an old garment a new lease of life. There is a safety in it there: rebellious, yes, but also comforting.
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