It is summertime (thankfully). And given the advent of warm weather and the sudden desire to drink at outdoor bars that get to be called beer gardens because they feature a few potted plants, it is also gingham time. Time to wear gingham, and time to share opinions about it.
Cosmopolitan noted in March “anything’s better in gingham print,” while the New York Times recently announced “Goodbye, Gingham” (welcoming, instead, high-necked billowy fabrics). Of course, this was a few weeks after the Times’s T Magazine recommended an “elegant and playfully nostalgic” gingham handbag. Last spring, the Wall Street Journal featured an article titled “Stop Dressing Like Every Other Guy: Give Up Your Gingham Shirts.” Two months later, the Journal went further: “Over Gingham Shirts? This Summer Try Tie-Dye.” By the end of summer, it had changed its tone, endorsing “Gingham’s New Chic.”
It was all very gingham. The fabric can come off as fashionable yet basic, noticeable yet predictable. It symbolizes a working-class past yet transcends it, making gingham a choice for models and celebrities as much as immigrant strivers. Summer picnic tables are adorned in red gingham, and every man in America is adorned in blue, courtesy of that oft-ridiculed J.Crew shirt. In recent years, each passing summer has brought new and resurrected gingham styles (gingham Nike Cortez, gingham swimsuits, gingham Katy Perry robot) and numerous takes celebrating or eulogizing the look.
But there is a reason we are living in this gingham era. With oceans, economic inequality, and political division rising, familiarity and simplicity feel pretty good. “If stability started to reign, whether in politics or economics, maybe a bolder pattern that shows imbalance or discord would take hold,” says pattern artist Michelle Grabner, who routinely features gingham in her exhibitions. “We have to be aware of the context we’re living in. These last two years, blue gingham makes so much sense to me.”
A brief history of gingham
Gingham was first made in Asia, possibly in Malaysia; the Malay word genggang provides the root for the English gingham. It was popularized by the Dutch and English in the 18th century. The pattern is repeating checks, typically a crisp white contrasted with a bright color that pops. Gingham is geometry, mathematically predictable; it has the same look from every side. That predictability differs from plaid, which Jude Stewart, the author of the book Patternalia, says is too variable to produce the iconic, eye-catching look that gingham does.
It’s also hard to screw up. Gingham goes with other patterns and many colors and requires minimal maintenance for any body type. “There’s something about how it shapes the body,” says Eva Franco, who has used gingham on strapless dresses and mixed it with polka dots for her eponymous Los Angeles clothing line. “It’s like a nice frame. A flower print would be more decorative. [Gingham] feels like an envelope and it just encompasses you. It makes you look together.”
Yes, gingham does the hard work for us.
The United States had gingham by the 19th century. It was the durable choice for men and women of the plains. It really took off as a domestic fabric in 1916 when a Kansas City designer named Nelly Don, “the grand lady of the garment industry,” created a pink gingham housedress. She sold 216 dresses at $1 apiece in one day, and the dress became a phenomenon. Before, women mostly spent long hours sewing their own clothes, or bought ugly “Mother Hubbard” dresses to wear around the house.
Judy Garland then wore a light blue gingham dress in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, pairing the look with a wicker picnic basket and an unrelenting desire to return home. Hollywood good girl Doris Day wore gingham in the 1940s. In 1959, actress Brigitte Bardot got married in gingham. These popular, wholesome portrayals happen to skew overwhelmingly wealthy and white.
But gingham has also been associated with striving and equality and a subtle hint of subversion that hides amid the predictability. Nelly Don’s gingham housedress, according to a study by Centenary College professor Mikyoung Whang and Kansas State professor Sherry Haar, allowed women to look good, freed them from long hours spent sewing, and signified their introduction into consumer culture, fitting as a piece of the progressive “New Woman” movement of the early 20th century.
At a glance, Day may have looked like the girl next door in gingham, but, as A.O. Scott wrote, her legacy lives on as a sex goddess whose presence “simultaneously upholds the pretense of virtuous normality and utterly transgresses it.” Bardot was reimagining the traditional wedding and the traditional limits of gingham. The provocative 1997 Comme des Garçons collection used gingham “lumps and bumps” on bellies, shoulders, and hips to question societal assumptions about female beauty.
Gingham’s relationship with class and personality is more mobile than that of, say, houndstooth and seersucker. They both began as a working-class looks but morphed into suit patterns for the aristocracy. One of the best-known traditions related to seersucker is “Seersucker Thursday.” That’s when US senators, disapproved of by at least 69 percent of the American public for the past decade, wear seersucker suits on Capitol Hill.
In the latter half of the 20th century, gingham hung on in large part because of a tote bag designed by the inexpensive brand Tati. As Stewart explains in Patternalia, these bags, “totes Barbes,” were immensely popular among African immigrants living in France, who helped spread the trend worldwide and inspired high-fashion designers like Louis Vuitton.
The low-high class movement gets complicated by the French word for gingham: vichy. The French call it that because the fabric was prominently manufactured in Vichy, France. That name doesn’t exactly convey egalitarianism, considering Vichy was the capital for the provisional French government that sided with the Nazis in World War II.
The gingham “safety net”
This recent gingham boom started in about 2009, during the Great Recession. High-fashion designers, such as Balenciaga, Paskal, Christopher Kane, and Oscar de la Renta, have featured gingham in their collections. Taylor Swift has walked the streets of Nashville in it. Dua Lipa posed in mint green gingham in Las Vegas. Rihanna wowed in a light pink gingham pantsuit. Mindy Kaling reinvents gingham chic all the dang time.
The runways and celebrities have elevated gingham beyond totes Barbes and J.Crew. This has also maybe set gingham on fashion’s cruel filtering cycle. As Meryl Streep’s version of Anna Wintour explains in The Devil Wears Prada — in the quiet, authoritative way only Meryl Streep can — all trends eventually end up at department stores and then clearance racks, possibly in the form of a lumpy sweater. And for the past year or so, gingham has been as likely to appear at Target as on the runway. In April 2018, Bloomberg highlighted data from the trend forecasting firm WGSN that showed new gingham items on store shelves had doubled from the previous year, suggesting the fabric was peaking and would soon be on its way out.
At J.Crew, it’s only getting harder to buy that gingham shirt. For at least the past few weeks, the blue “Secret Wash shirt in faded gingham” has been unavailable online. The product listing features the note, “We’re sorry. This item has been so popular, it has sold out.” Last year, the brand closed 34 stores and has plans to close 20 this year (a J.Crew spokesperson did not respond to an interview request).
But the potential for gingham fatigue or its disappearance ignores its staying power and, perhaps, the world’s inability to not scare the hell out of us. Gingham’s prevalence provides what Grabner, the pattern artist, calls a “psychological safety net.” And it has been appearing as a trend often when America needs it the most. In 1929, the New York Times announced “gingham is being revived” just in time for the stock market crash. It made a similar proclamation in 1946, as we recovered from World War II; in 1968, amid Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; in 1991, as we got used to a new world order without the Soviet Union; and 2009, around the time Americans stopped believing in continued prosperity.
Grabner regularly wears a pair of red gingham Vans, but only at home. She doesn’t want it to be a part of her identity, like Beuys’s hat or Chihuly’s eyepatch. But she still enjoys seeing it on everyone else.
“My husband,” Grabner says, “wears a light blue gingham shirt when we go out.”
Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.