Boomers Loved to Tie-Dye

When people talk about the sixties these days, images of long hair, peace symbols and tie-dye shirts pictured in Summer of Love photographs run rampant through their perceptions. It’s been fifty years since the Summer of Love, that coming-of-age party for the Hippie and Psychedelic Era. Boomers know that the sixties were more than that, but the Summer of Love did play a huge role in our music and fashion in the latter half of the decade.

One area of fashion that swept through boomer youth from coast to coast was do-it-yourself tie dye. In the sixties, young people developed their own sense of style that was mostly in harmony with notions of an idealized world where people lived in peace. Part of that utopian dream was living off the land and making a lot of things yourself. Yet tie-dye fashion — in particular the homemade tie-dye t-shirt — had its roots a few thousand years before the Summer of Love.

Tie-dyed fabric has been around for thousands of years in India, Japan, China, Africa and parts of South America. The techniques varied from area to area and century to century, but they all had one thing in common: it involved tying or binding areas of fabric and dyeing it. Areas tied off would not take the dye, creating patterns that were identifiable to specific regions.

Bandhani fabrics from India date back six thousand years. Their technique was meticulously tying tiny balls of fabric (often silk) with thread so that after dyeing with natural dyes, the resulting patterns would be composed of dots. The Japanese Shibori technique folded and tied fabric to create fascinating, flowing patterns, usually in indigo. So how did this ancient method find its way into sixties counterculture?

It was in 1965 that marketing executive Don Price — former brand marketing guru for Hellmann’s mayonnaise — took the challenge to reverse the downward sales trend of Rit dyes. The company had been producing dyes for the home market since 1917, but with changing times came a shift away from Rit’s powdered dye and traditional colors.

Price, tuned into the creative energy that was bursting out of Greenwich Village in New York, convinced some artists to experiment with Rit dyes. He bought several bolts of velvet and chiffon fabric and gave them to Will and Eilleen Richardson, a couple who were former window designers. Word got out as other artists experimented with Rit, and the home DIY tie-dye movement had begun. In turn, Price convinced the company to create a liquid dye that would be more controllable for creative applications.

Artists and musicians were the first to sport the designs, and, possibly because many traveled from the east coast to California, spread the DIY tie-dye bug. It is also said that even though Don Price’s marketing of Rit may have been responsible for the widespread appeal across the nation, Californians had independently started the trend after taking trips to India. Does it matter, boomers? We came, we saw, we tie-dyed!

Back in New York, the samples made by the Richardsons so impressed Price that he took them to fashion designers hoping to coax them into using the fabrics in their designs. All but one refused him. Halston liked the samples and ordered $5000 worth. From there it was only a matter of time until tie-dye graced the covers of fashion magazines like Vogue.

Meanwhile, a few music legends we identify with the sixties had embraced the DIY tie-dye look early on. Chief among them were Janis Joplin, Mama Cass and John Sebastian. It is said that Sebastian so loved the individualism of tie-dye that he dyed his own underwear. The Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, precursor to the Summer of Love, was the big introduction of the tie-dye look for a lot of boomers, reinforced by the counterculture images flashing on the evening news fifty years ago. At Woodstock in 1969, Joplin, Joe Cocker and others wore tie-dyed garments on stage, while celebrities like Ali MacGraw and Marisa Berenson had joined the revolution by wearing Halston’s tie-dye fashions on the street and on fashion magazine covers as the sixties became the seventies.

Out in boomer country, the spirit of DIY fashion, coupled with the wide availability and affordability of Rit dyes, allowed tie-dye to sweep the nation. Shortly after the Summer of Love, Mister Boomer was introduced to the technique by his brother. After watching Brother Boomer make a couple of tie-dyed t-shirts in the family’s basement, he had to try it himself. The local five and dime had a large display of Rit dyes. Mister B bought some Navy blue Rit powder dye and mixed it in a bucket, as he had seen his brother do before him. He took a white t-shirt, some string and rubber bands and set about tying parts of the shirt before dyeing. Once he dropped it into the bucket, he left it overnight. The next day he pulled it from the bucket and rinsed it multiple times — like his brother had done — before untying the bindings. He had a distinct pattern of three white circular areas of differing sizes drifting across the front of his now blue shirt, like cosmic jelly fish swimming across the Sea of the Universe. Wow, man! Mister B was pleased with the result. After an initial washing, he wore the shirt everywhere. His tie-dye lasted a decade, and he cherished it even more as the color faded.

So the Rit company — and boomers — have Don Price to thank for saving the brand and for the tie-dye movement that is still — like Rit dyes — going strong today. Tie dye is often associated with cannabis culture today, and though Mister B would hardly be called a follower of that philosophy, owns two tie-dyed shirts. One was a gift, the other he purchased. People know when you are a child of the sixties, man, so why hide it?

Did you make your own tie-dyed fashions, boomers? Do you own any tie-dye today?

Boomers Wore Nehru Jackets … Temporarily

The style that came to be known in the Western World as the Nehru jacket came to the Boomer Generation in variety of ways. The fashion item itself had its origins in Asia thousands of years ago. Most of Asian cultures had a variation on the straight, thigh-length jacket with a collarless neckline. The jacket, so called because it was worn over a shirt, was generally reserved for the noble class or used as ceremonial garb.

The garment we knew as the “Nehru jacket” was so named after India’s political activist and first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). As a constant reminder of his objection to British rule, he wore a traditional coat that resembled the styles of Achkan, Sherwani or Bandhgala designs that spoke of Indian culture in the years immediately before and after India gained its independence in the 1940s.

The U.S. got its first-hand look at Nehru’s mode of dress in 1962. China had just acted aggressively by moving troops into northern India, alarming world leaders in the process. In an effort to sway Nehru into joining the fight against Communism, President Kennedy invited him to visit the White House. A pacifist at heart like his co-activist friend Gandhi, Nehru called China “India’s brother.” Shortly thereafter China withdrew its troops. Photos of the President and the First Lady with the Prime Minister and his wife fascinated fashionistas in Britain and the U.S.

One of the earliest commonly-viewed influences of the style turned up in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). The title character (played by Joseph Wiseman) wore a Mandarin collar jacket that was probably more Chinese-influenced than Indian. As the villain in the film, he was the antithesis of India’s Prime Minister.

A burgeoning counterculture fashion industry and a growing number of disaffected youth  began looking to the East for guidance, after rejecting “Western values” as they saw them. They coalesced when the Beatles began wearing collarless suits in the early 1960s; the Beatles had a huge influence on the elevation of the Nehru jacket, but not in the main form Mandarin collar we recall from the era. Rather, British designers used the style as inspiration for collarless suit jackets. Before the Beatles, it was common for rock ‘n roll band members to wear business suits and ties. The Beatles were among the first to straddle the line between respectable and irreverent by wearing collarless suit jackets.


Timothy Leary wore a collarless Asian-style garment in the days of his Hippie influence.

In 1966 the Beatles visited India to study meditation. By the time they returned to Britain, Eastern philosophy and style had permeated the counterculture, especially the Hippies. British designers, keen on expanding the new Age of Fashion, seized the moment and produced variations of their own on a jacket they now labelled as “Nehru,” both to honor the pacifist man and give a Western name to an Asian style. Nonetheless, even though there are photos of John and George wearing Indian-style Nehru jackets around the time of their India trip, it is worth noting that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967), the first released after their trip, does not depict the Fab Four wearing Nehru jackets. Rather, they are dressed in military-style band uniforms that do have a collarless neckline.

Fashion followers say the popularity of the jacket, which had been on the rise up to the Summer of Love in 1967, took a nosedive after celebrities such as Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joe Namath began wearing the style on a regular basis, often paired with a turtleneck and beads or a medallion necklace. By that point — around 1968 — jackets, vests, shirts and blouses sporting the Nehru collar were available across the consumer spectrum for men, women and children. The Nehru was doomed to be a fashion fad in the Western world, though it still turns up as hip wear for some popular musicians.

And that is where Mister Boomer’s awareness entered. On a family trip to New York City in 1967, Brother Boomer slipped into a shop in Greenwich Village and emerged with the most beautiful Nehru jacket Mister B has seen to this day. It was jet black with a gold brocade paisley design that was all at once modern and timeless, classy and fashion-forward. When the family returned home, Mister Boomer kept an eye out for a similar garment for himself. The closest he came was a short-sleeve shirt that sported a Nehru collar. It was blue with a gold paisley pattern, but paled in comparison to the masterful garment his brother had procured. Mister Boomer did not get invited to many parties, but does recall that in his earliest high school days, he wore his short-sleeve Nehru to one. Needless to say, he was the only one dressed in that style.

How about it, boomers? Did you wear Nehru-style clothing? If so, was it a fashion statement or a cultural statement?