To the greater glory of gingham
September 9, 2012
I’ve been thinking about gingham on and off for quite a few years now, but it’s finally inspired me to return to my blog via a particularly subtle and wonderful dress I encountered just a few days ago, which set my mind spinning, crystallising some vague ideas about fashion, time and change.
Gingham is (usually) a medium-weight cotton-based fabric dyed with stripes in both directions to create a checker pattern. Apparently the name is a distortion of an old Malay or Indonesian word meaning ‘striped’ – there are other theories, but to me this seems quite convincing, having seen it so abundantly displayed all over Bali in both religious and secular settings.
Gingham dates back at least as far as the 17th century, and is evidently quite simple to produce using traditional weaving methods. In fact I would say it’s just about the simplest fabric design that is deserving of being given it’s own name. As a concept it’s only marginally more complex than simply ‘striped’ or ‘spotted’. And as a visual phenomenon it has elements of both of those, which I think is what attracts me. It has a kind of spottiness that emerges when the eye focuses on the array of intersection points, and yet also a linear rigour.
It draws me into a kind of gentle visual grazing that I’ve done a lot of all my life. I find my focus wandering softly over the texture, my mind unconsciously sifting the pattern, feeling my way into it as it repeats across different depths of dye – intense at the cross points, milder between, and then the white – and noticing how it inflects with light and shade, the curves of the body, and movement. It’s a visual rhythm basic enough to pull me into a state of trance-like fascination sometimes (e.g. in business meetings), and I suspect that this potential for a strong aesthetic response, despite being so simple to make, is why it’s been popular for so long.
So Gingham represents a long line of tradition. As well as in Bali, where what I think of as Holy Gingham – usually in a bold black and white – is one of the distinctive sights of the island, adorning almost every statue, pillar and lingam in every temple, it’s found widely across Asia in various forms of traditional dress. An example is the gamucha, a thin towel / scarf worn by men in India. I believe in Bali the pattern has some kind of yin / yang resonance, which makes complete sense to me.
It’s also been used for centuries in the western world, typically for blouses and dresses, but also for curtains, tablecloths, aprons, etc. and even furniture and crockery. It’s one of the staples of design. But what meaning does it carry; what is its stylistic significance?
A whole book could be written in answer to that – and of course it changes with time – but what I sense is a combination of childlike, whimsical, and relaxed, with suggestions of country, prairie, and a sizeable dollop of kitchen. To which must be added that it now references historical periods when it has been most popular – particularly the 50s (Dorothy), but also to a lesser extent Victorian times, plus mods and skinheads. It can be found in the V&A collection as an example of 1970s skinhead clothing.
In this sense, with its modest range of colours and variations, gingham is always with us, morphing very slowly, picking up meanings over decades.
But what has caught my attention more recently is the way, over the past decade, it seems to have perfectly exemplified what I think of as the process of fashion.
The way a simple design meme becomes a heightened subject of creative attention, is subjected to waves of development and elaboration, changing, expanding, and distorting, until it eventually subsides and declines. Over a period of years, season by season, designers copy and inspire each other, competing to develop the basic form in what seems to me a process of squeezing every last drop of meaning from it.
Firstly, the basic traditional form of gingham simply becomes more fashionable – I can’t recall exactly when this happened – then, in the space of a few years, something like this takes place:
– Giant gingham
– Diagonal gingham
– Double gingham
– Multi-coloured gingham
– Gingham on black
– Rectangular gingham
– Curved gingham
– Patchwork gingham
– Collage gingham
– Gingham with skulls
– Gingham / plaid hybrid
– Deconstructed gingham
This proliferation that takes place during the fashion cycle has other dimensions too. The range of fabrics is gradually expanded, as is the range of garments and other artefacts decorated with it: pants, bras, notebooks, umbrellas, laptop covers, corsets, shoes … in all sorts of fabrics, natural and synthetic, printed as well as woven. Latex gingham? Of course: the specialist is William Wilde.
Which leads us to the point at which the fabric ceases to be gingham at all and simply becomes a historical reference in the designer’s palette. It then subsides into the background ready to be reborn at some future point, presumably when a new generation of shoppers has arisen who are largely unaware of it. The basic forms continue to be available in conventional ways, but as a fashion phenomenon it is dormant.
To me it’s the perfect symbol of the creative process as applied in contemporary culture. It also exemplifies the pace of contemporary design. My (very limited) understanding of Roman culture suggests that fashions from haircuts to togas, while important, played out over many decades, presumably due to much slower transmission of ideas. The gingham fashion cycles centred on the 50s and in Victorian times seem to have been slower, less frantic, variants on what I’ve seen in the 21st century.
So gingham has a background meaning, which is itself quite complex and slowly shifting, touching on Balinese gods, prairie life and the fifties, but also a foreground meaning, which spins out in an exaggerated creativity with the waves of fashion. And whenever those waves return they will be different, because they speak specifically of the patterns of their own times.
These layered processes at multiple paces of change apply everywhere across our culture – music, painting, interior decoration, food and drink, technology, typeface etc. – though with variations depending on the economic context. The application of developmental processes to a basic phenomenon both exemplify and symbolise change, growth and decay. Which in a way takes us back to those Hindu gods wrapped in cotton.
Gingham makes me smile because it seems such a transparent revelation of the way almost everything happens in the great game of social and economic creativity. And I can enjoy reflecting on that while looking at frocks, which is always one of the happiest ways to practice philosophy. I could bring Wittgenstein, Husserl and Barthes into the conversation but I’d rather explore their vintage wardrobes.
To finish on a personal note, my own inventory consists of one single gingham garment: a linen shirt acquired in Top Shop, Birmingham on a business trip circa 2009. It’s completely classic, but for me it’s the absolutely perfect example. The only trouble is, it now sends me spinning off into philosophical daydreams.