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?