A HINT OF PRINT

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Applied Fashion: some prints and patterns deserve to be worn. But others, Rebecca Willis advises, are just plain off the wall...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

I have been curious about the relationship between fashion and furniture ever since I was mistaken for a sofa. To be fair, I was being teased at the time: I had agreed to be a bridesmaid, at the ill-advised age of 28, and before you could say “mutton dressed as lamb” I found myself covered from neck to ankle in a glazed, floral, pastel Laura Ashley print. My friends had a point: it did look like furnishing fabric.

That is both the difficulty and the power of prints: they are highly associative. A pattern can conjure up time or place more quickly and precisely than a plain colour ever could. William Morris’s “Strawberry Thief”? My grandmother’s drawing room. Sea shells on a turquoise ground? A sunny beach in my first sarong. Geometric blue-and-red on white? My school shirt, stiff, scratchy and new. Patterns store themselves in our brains, like high-speed time machines.

Prints are everywhere, often for sound practical reasons. Have you ever wondered why hotel carpets tend to be patterned rather than plain? They hide a multitude of sins and dirty suitcase marks. Cheap clothes tend to be a riot of prints, because the pattern detracts from any shortcomings in cut or fit. But when printed fabric first became available in the West—the techniques having been invented and refined in India and beyond—its enormous popularity lay in its novelty. The so-called “indiennes”, imported from the end of the 16th century, were the first decorative textiles to use metallic salts to fix colours onto the cloth. Lightweight calico panels landed in the hands of Europeans used to wearing heavy wool, linen and embroidered silk. They were greeted with a sigh of relief that must have been audible back in Calcutta (from which the word calico is derived), and were used avidly for both interiors and clothes.

Before then, if you wanted pattern on your walls it meant either paint or tapestry; the first printed wallpapers mimicked tapestries to the extent of having stitches in their designs. On September 5th 1663, Samuel Pepys bought his wife “a chinte [the word chintz was still singular then]… that is paynted Indian callico for to line her new study, which is very pretty.” Before long, the rage for printed cotton from the East took such a hold that it posed a threat to Europe’s home-grown fabric industry. In France in 1686 there was a decree forbidding the wearing of “toiles de coton peintes aux Indes”, and in England in 1701 silk and wool weavers obtained a ban on Indian printed calico. Women could be fined for appearing in chintz gowns. It is hard to conceive that putting on a printed cotton dress was once as controversial as wearing fur is today. 

The late 18th century brought the invention of roller printing, to replace the laborious process of block-printing by hand. Just as the industrialisation of the printed word heralded the great age of the novel, so the rate at which printed fabric could be produced changed the way we decorate our homes and ourselves for ever.

The evocative power of a print goes beyond the personal; prints conjure up whole eras of history, too. And because our furnishings are more likely to outlive us than the contents of our wardrobes, it tends to be wallpapers and furnishing fabrics that speak loudest of the past. So when fashion designers use a toile de Jouy or a Liberty print, they are unmistakably quoting from a particular period—although these fabrics may well have gathered other associations en route down the ages. 

Because our homes are bigger than the people inside them, furnishing fabrics often use proportionately larger prints. So scale becomes significant when prints appear on clothes: a giant chintz on a skirt or dress is witty because it deliberately refers to its origins on a wall or curtains, whereas the same pattern rendered small is a straight-faced dress fabric. There is a subtle interplay, too, between shape and pattern—a Diane von Furstenberg wrap-dress depends for much of its oomph on a strong, geometric print, whereas a 1950s tea dress requires a delicate, spriggy pattern to keep it sweet and feminine. If you keep the dress shapes and swap the prints around, they become completely and almost unrecognisably altered.

Wearing a print, as I discovered at that wedding, can be overwhelming; the person inside it can get lost. Perhaps a hint of print is the way to go, rather than head-to-toe coverage: a skirt or a shirt, maybe, or a dress that leaves either arms or legs or both outside the print zone, to show there’s someone alive in there. Unless, that is, you really want to look like a sofa.

Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life.

Illustration Bill Brown