Un-checkered Past: The History of Gingham and the "Good Girl" Look

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A good fabric finds its way into any era without compromising its original intent. That's why everyone looks at least a little more badass in a leather jacket, or like Diane Keaton while wearing linen.

Gingham is no exception. It's one of the few fabrics able to transcend eras, cuts, and colors without losing its innate "wholesome" quality. Think about it: what was Dorothy wearing in The Wizard of Oz? Brigitte Bardot in her wedding photos? Doris Day in nearly everything she ever did?

With summer slowly (but surely!) approaching, I wanted to dive into the history of this fabric and ask why gingham always seems to be the fabric for the "good girl".

  Shortly after this picture was taken, I was told to get the hell away from this car. Clearly, I only dress like a "good girl"...I never said I was one.

Shortly after this picture was taken, I was told to get the hell away from this car. Clearly, I only dress like a "good girl"...I never said I was one.

Before researching this piece, I believed that gingham's history was based solely in the United States—that it was the checkered flag of Americana and twentieth century nostalgia. Nope.

Turns out gingham was actually pretty promiscuous in its past: with origins in India, Germany, France, the Masai tribe in Africa, Cambodia, Japan, and elsewhere, gingham has been used around the world since at least the 1600s. Even in Indonesia, the contrasting colors found in gingham were a symbol for the battle between evil and good.

This post focuses mainly on the American past of gingham, but if you're really keen on its international background, check out this article by V is for Vintage.

Rural Roots

As American cotton mills grew in size and quantity during the 19th century, gingham became the go-to fabric for all ages and genders. It was easy to make in multiple colors, inexpensive to produce, and could be cut into any clothing pattern. Because the fabric sold so well, the economic boost gave gingham an essence of patriotism. 

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Victories for America & Its Unofficial Fabric

Gingham survived two World Wars as an American staple in fashion and home goods; from the early to mid twentieth century, movie stars and the middle class alike brought gingham into their everyday wardrobes. The fabric's weight was light enough to wear all year (but predominantly in the summer) and easy enough to repurpose into a range of outfits. In an era devoid of embellishment and "glam", gingham found its stride as a durable and simple fabric for patriotic Americans of any age.

No one wore gingham better than Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)...and it's because they were styled by the same Hollywood costumer, Adrian. His blue gingham designs were meant to play up the characters' all-American roots: Garland's as the young girl who just wants to go home to Kansas and Hepburn's as a betrothed socialite.

  Judy Garland as Dorothy in  The Wizard of Oz.

Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

  Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in  The Philadelphia Story.

Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story.

 

1950s Gingham: A Non-threatening Sexuality

Decades of seeing gingham on the aprons of housewives and as playsuits for youthful, innocent children cemented gingham's symbolism as the go-to fabric for "good girls". By the 1950s and early 1960s, it was common to see the fabric draped as a full skirt for mom and tied up at the bottom of a button down shirt on the wholesome girl next door. It wasn't sexual, but tighter fits and more creative cuts allowed the fabric to become flirtatious without scaring off the older generations.

Even two of the sexiest women alive, Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, found their way to gingham. Monroe had the fabric fashioned into pants for a photoshoot and Bardot wore it for her second wedding to Jacques Charrier in 1959.

  Marilyn Monroe in gingham. c/o  Appycat .

Marilyn Monroe in gingham. c/o Appycat.

  Brigitte Bardot in pink gingham for her wedding day (1959). c/o  From the Bygone

Brigitte Bardot in pink gingham for her wedding day (1959). c/o From the Bygone

1970s — Early 2000s

Likely due to the rise of anti-American sentiments (e.g. the counterculture, "hippies", protestors of the Vietnam war), gingham fell out of fashion in the 1970s but never fell far enough to lose its "good girl" audience. Full gingham dresses (like Bardot's above) transitioned into shirts with a more relaxed fit for men and women alike.

The fabric briefly resurfaced in the 1990s when Linda Evangelista wore Versace's take on the fabric in a 1994 runway show. The cutout in the collarbone of the jacket and short skirt juxtaposed with the wholesome Peter Pan neckline puts a high-fashion spin on the Americana classic.

  Linda Evangelista, 1994 Versace Couture. via  Pinterest .

Linda Evangelista, 1994 Versace Couture. via Pinterest.

Aside from the high-waisted capri pants worn by that one retro Rockabilly chick we all knew in the early 2000s, gingham has kept a mysteriously low profile until recent years. In 2013, I began to notice a resurgence of gingham, revitalized for the street style generation. The sweetness of the fabric was still there, only this time it followed Versace's cue and found myriad ways to "edge" up a now American legend.

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Perhaps it's the fashion world begging for a simpler time with easier fabrics, or the real world begging for American nostalgia (Make America Gingham Again! (???)) but I get the gingham bug every spring and do my best to find the most "me" way to wear this long-loved fabric. In the photoshoot I did here with Kate, we played into the "good girl" stereotype by finding an old-school ride; see above for my not-so-good-girl behavior. I paired the wiggle dress with low, brightly colored heels and mini vintage purse.

Learning the history of this fabric has taught me that it was never intended for just one audience. So go ahead: pair your gingham with a leather jacket. Dress it up with satin, pigmented pants. Wear it on a teeny bikini or as your winter coat. Look like a "good girl" but be as bad as you want. Your past will never be as checkered as gingham's.

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