Presenting 150 examples of textiles cherished and preserved through generations from 1700 to the present day. From a status symbol to fashion for all.
Presenting exquisitely preserved examples, the “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom” exhibition hosted at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London showcases Indian and European chintz on a multitude of garments. The collection is displayed on two floors with 150 examples of the textile and shows a transition from a status symbol to fashion affordable to everyone.
Chintz is a colourful type of cotton which has been hand-printed or hand-painted and originated in India. The most common motifs and patterns are flowers, insects, and animals, but some exquisite pieces in the exhibition show sailing boats and human figures.
The result was unique in 16th and 17th centuries, as chintz retains qualities such as the flexibility of the fabric, the possibility to wash the product, and vibrant multicolours. The charm is owned to the flowers, which are often decorative rather than realistic. The original Indian designs revealed fantasy flowers and actual local flora such as the lotus or the pomegranate.
The chintz became a favourite because of the beautiful floral patterns imported into Europe in the 16th century. Once the chintz became produced for the European markets, the design was “Westernised”, featuring more familiar plants such as peonies, carnations, or corn. In the 17th century, the ten steps process was a secret reserved for the elites when India started producing it for the European customers as chintz was very expensive.
In the 17th century, chintz was used as currency and exchanged by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) for spices from Asia, but some fabrics were occasionally brought home. The European elites were mesmerised by the fabrics’ silk-like shine, exotic floral decorations, and practical soft, washable, and colour-fast.
The process of printing on cotton using metal salts, vegetable dyes, hand painting and hand-carved printing blocks was developed in India to fix dies on textile. The method remained a trade secret until the 18th century, and Indian artisans maintained their supremacy in producing chintz. The Indian textile trade was the backbone of the medieval international economy, as they were bartered for spices from the eastern Indonesian islands (Peck, 2013).
The word “chintz” is derived from the Persian chitta, which means “spotted” or “printed”. Chit is the Hindi word for a wooden printed block.
The Exhibition in London
The Fashion and Textile Museum in London is a breathable space where the visitor can enjoy looking at the beautiful fabrics without glass obstruction, as most pieces are displayed throughout the two floors.
You can watch online the “Curator Talk: Cotton in Bloom”, which is made available for purchase directly on the Fashion and Textile Museum website and enjoy a 75 minutes panel discussion chaired by Head of Exhibitions at the FTM Dennis Nothdruft, the former curator of Fashion and Textiles, Fries Museum Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, Gieneke Arnolli, and the curator of the display Victorian Chintz and its Legacy within the “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom” exhibition, Mary Schoeser.
The exhibition features 150 examples of treasured textiles, engaging videos to show the process of creating the chintz and modern approaches where the fabrics are displayed as art.
The visit starts with an impressive display of a Japanese style morning gown for men, from 1700-25, painted with prunus and pine tree motif and lined with two different printed Indian cotton. This 18th century kimono is the perfect synergy between East and West, as the fabric and garment are Indian, the style is Japanese, and was worn by a wealthy Dutchman. The garment was worn as a status symbol or as a luxurious housecoat.
Another breath-taking display is of an impressive petticoat made from European chintz, with an exotic seascape and Dutch West India Company Ships from the Netherlands circa 1775-1800.
The European chintz appeared as a response to the demand for Indian chintz. By 1770, the fabric that was initially so expensive that only the upper-middle class could afford became available in various styles and sizes. The European textile manufacturers began to produce imitations of chintz, which were affordable to the lower social classes.
From a 17th century status symbol for the rich, it became an 18th century fashion for all.
Nowadays, chintz remains a source of inspiration. The project Textiel Factorij, which explores the mutual heritage between India and the Netherlands, conducts artistic research on the history of textiles, trade routes and politics.
A few examples in the London Fashion and Textile Museum’s exhibition of Dutch artists and designers explored the ancient tradition of block printing, hand-printing, and modern production techniques to breathe a new life into the Indian and Dutch shared history of chintz.
As carving the blocks, hand-painting, and vegetable dyeing have become rare skills, the traditional techniques are disappearing rapidly both in India and the Netherlands.
The modern industry of textiles can produce industrial imitations widely available to the masses. Used in modern prints, dresses, interiors, printed cotton is in bloom during the spring-summer season year after year. Fashion designers have embraced and allowed to be inspired by the luxurious prints of the past and incorporated chintz in their runway collections.
The “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom” exhibition is truly worth taking the time to visit at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, and it is available until the 12th of September 2021. If you have enjoyed learning about textiles and fashion throughout the centuries, check out our review of “Harper Bazaar. First in Fashion Paris Exhibition”.
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