Justin Bieber wears it to church, Lady Amelia Windsor recently wore a Michael Kors version, and at last week’s New York fashion week it was given the high-fashion nod by Calvin Klein. Proof, if proof were needed, of the broad appeal of tie-dye, which is having a moment of mainstream acceptability.
Tie-dye has been on our radar for the last few seasons, largely because it has appeared as much on the catwalk as off it – one of the street-style highlights from this weekend’s London shows was an Ashley Williams green-and-yellow tie-dye hoodie that read: “Don’t know don’t care.”
Its current popularity may be thanks to its versatility. Tony Glenville, creative director of the school of media and communication at London College of Fashion, describes it as “a great background to put logos over” that works “at a designer level and cheap”. Tie-dye pieces on the high street (see Asos T-shirts, Champion hoodies and Stussy shirts) are also tapping into the DIY aesthetic in an age in which authenticity is prized, regardless of whether it actually is authentic.
Tie-dye was once authentic, says Alistair O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins. According to O’Neill, various guises of “resist-dying”, where materials and methods are used to prevent the dye from reaching all the cloth, have existed for centuries in countries such as Indonesia, Japan and India.
Tie-dye as we know it was adopted in the US by hippies who were – according to O’Neill – interested in “using secondhand folk and tribal fabrics and bringing those into the mix to suggest an alternative anti-consumer form of dress”, and realised they could make their own DIY version. It was also a lot about psychedelic drugs and “the idea of acid visions and forms of visual transportation that mind-altering drugs can offer”.
In the late 60s, tie-dye fell to commercialisation on the US east coast after an employee of the failing Rit Dye company persuaded his bosses to swap powder dyes for squeezable liquid versions – all the better for creating tie-dye with. The garments went on to be sold at Woodstock, a seminal moment marked by Janis Joplin on the stage in head-to-toe tie-dye.
In 2018, though, it’s more about muted colours. At Ganni, tie-dye T-shirts the colour of butterscotch Angel Delight have a sophistication their psychedelic cousins could only dream of, while at Topshop, a Glamorous Bardot top gets the tie-dye tratment in muted sky-blue. As O’Neill says, “it doesn’t look particularly 1968” – though it might be a little easier to wear than that decade’s rainbow brights.