The history of tie-dyed shirts dates back to ancient China, though many people still associate them with Woodstock and the hippie lifestyle from the 1960s. Nearly every culture in the world has a different version of tie-dye, but it seems most popular in Asian countries like Japan and Indonesia. In the United States, these shirts didn’t begin appearing until the 1920s, but they still exist today in different styles and forms.
The earliest mention of tie-dye in historical records comes from China and Japan. In China they were using tie-dye from 618 to 906 C.E. during the T’ang dynasty. In Japan they used tie-dye from 552 to 794 C.E., also known as the Nara period. These people used dyes from naturally growing flowers, berries, roots and leaves such as lichen, blackberries, onion, indigo, sage and marigold. They extracted the color from those items by boiling them in hot water and then dipping the cloth into the water and letting it seep.
During the Momoyama Period, from 1568 to 1603, a new type of tie-dye known as tsujigahana appeared. This process involved using tie-dye in combination with sumi, which is a type of Chinese ink. Cloth pieces were laid down and the image or sketch drawn on the fabric with the ink. The garment was then dipped into the dye, which colored the surrounding fabric and made the design look darker. These pieces of clothing were prized possessions, and many still exist today.
The use of tie-dye came back into style during the 1920s and 1930s in the period known as the Roaring 20s and during the Great Depression. Pamphlets were given out to people showing them different ways of decorating their homes and designing clothing using tie-dye. These pamphlets showed women how to use old cotton flour, coffee and sugar sacks and then create clothes and home decorations. The idea was to have new-looking things without spending a lot of money.
The 1960s are the era most often associated with tie-dye, especially with reference to the hippie lifestyle. Few people can forget the image of women and men clad in tie-dye dancing to the music at Woodstock. The reason the style became popular again was because it was an easy and inexpensive way to express individuality. Concerts used banners covered in different tie-dyed colors, and people wore shirts that showed their own personal colors. Those living during this era appreciated the fact that no two shirts looked alike, even when dyed in the same colors.
1980s and Beyond
Every few years tie-dye shirts come back into style, but in the 1980s it really hit a high point as designers began incorporating the look into their shows. Changes in technology also led to new types of dye and paint being used. The older dyes seldom had any staying power and began fading after a few washes. The new dyes were more permanent and were available in many different shades and colors. Today tie-dye shirts are available in the traditional bright colors, black and white and even pastels.