As the mercury has inched up on the thermometer in recent weeks, my wardrobe has consisted almost exclusively of breezy cotton garments. Not only are they cool to wear, but they can be thrown in the wash without fuss. And besides, who doesn’t love the ease of a pretty flowered summer dress? So ubiquitous is cotton clothing these days that few of us can imagine life without it.
However, the stuff was once considered by Europeans as rare and exotic—controversial even. In the first half of the 17th century, Dutch and English East India Company (VOC and EIC) ships began bringing Indian printed and painted cottons—commonly referred to as chintz—to European markets. Derived from the Indian word “chitra” meaning “spotted” or “sprinkled,” chintz is typically decorated with overall floral patterns. Europeans were amazed by the bright colors and intricate designs, which were truly unlike anything they had ever seen. The colorfastness of the dyes and the resilience of the fabric meant that it could be easily washed, unlike silk or wool. It was also comparatively cheaper, which meant that consumers of many economic classes could afford the fabric.
Of course, for fashionable folk of means accustomed to wearing heavy wool and silk, it took some convincing that cotton might make suitable attire. The English East India Company routinely made gifts of calico to its elite clients at home, hoping that they would lead by example. But outspoken critics of the gauzy fabric tried to deter potential fashionistas by associating the light weight of the fabric with the moral character of its wearer.
Women in the Netherlands, however, seemed to have accepted cotton clothing long before their English counterparts.
In 1683 the London directors of the East India Company wrote to their officials in Surat: “you can not imagine the vast number of [chintzes] that would sell here to [the continent], they being the ware of Gentlewomen in Holland, but of the meaner sort here.”
It was, however, Dutch men who first developed a taste for the brightly colored, flowered Indian chintzes. A fashion for Japanese-style dressing gowns (known as a Japonse rok in the Dutch market, and banyan in the English market), made of silk became widespread among wealthy men in Amsterdam beginning in the 1640s. These first gowns came to the Netherlands via VOC merchants who had received them as gifts from the Japanese shogun. The wide, generous cut of the Japonse rok made it a comfortable alternative to restrictive public attire—and its Asian origins had an aura of exclusivity. Although it was generally worn only at home, the gown soon became common garb when having one’s portrait painted—the expense and exoticism of it was an indication of one’s social status and worldliness. The Japonse rok was not without its critics however, who found it deplorable that men would go about their business in such a form of “undress.”
However, the appeal of lighter, brighter clothing could not be denied, and in 1684 the VOC sent orders to India for 2000 Japonse rok to be made from chintz—it didn’t matter, it seems, if the gowns were made from Japanese silk or Indian cotton. The gown and matching waistcoat pictured here were made in the Netherlands, using finely painted chintz from India. Both the VOC and the EIC also discovered that they could sell more chintz if the designs appealed to European consumers. So sample patterns, including drawings, textiles, and engravings, were sent to India to be copied. The blue zigzagging ribbon pattern of the chintz in the Rijksmuseum banyan pictured above, for example, is probably based on a European silk.
PEM recently acquired an important collection of Dutch-market Indian chintzes dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as important early European printed cottons. Known as the Veldman-Eecen Collection, it includes approximately 170 pieces assembled in the Netherlands between the 1920s and 1960s by Alida Eecen-van Setten. In addition to an impressive number of furnishing textiles (such as bedcovers and quilts), the collection contains an array of chintz costumes from the northern Dutch province of Friesland. The most extraordinary of which is a blue-and-white wentke — a long gown, worn open in the front, over a blouse and petticoat.
The style of the gown, which is specific to the town of Hindeloopen, has its roots in the 16th century, when the garment commonly was made from wool. In the mid-18th century they began to be made from chintz — a tradition that persisted into the 20th century. Gowns, such as this one, made from monochrome blue or purple chintz were reserved for mourning. Red or multi-colored chintzes were worn for weddings, christenings, or festivals. The shorter version of the gown, known as kassekijntje, was a more common form of dress.
Chintz was particularly popular for children’s clothing. While the fabric’s ability to be washed was no doubt a highly appealing characteristic, its cheerful colors and designs naturally suited the younger set. The Veldman-Eecen collection includes a number of children’s jackets, sleeves and mittens, along with no fewer than 16 baby caps!
The fashion for chintz reached its peak in the 18th century, by which point it had become popular throughout Europe and the American colonies. In fact, the demand for cotton was so great that it almost destroyed domestic textile markets. To counter this, both the English and French governments placed strict bans on imports of Indian cotton. Domestic textile manufactures raced to discover how to create printed cottons as sophisticated as those imported from India. However, the first attempts were crude imitations of chintz. Produced using madder dye, which limited the colors to various shades of red and purple, they were hardly something a fashionable lady of fine tastes would even consider wearing.
Interestingly, England’s ban on Indian cotton did not extend to its American colonies. In fact, EIC ships bringing the stuff into English ports simply shipped it on to Boston, New York or Philadelphia. Jonathan and John Amory, merchants in Boston and Salem, advertised in the Boston Gazette in 1764, that a “fine assortment of calicos & chints” was available. And in March 1791, Elias Hasket Derby placed an advertisement in the Salem Gazette for “India Goods,” including “Chintz, a great variety.”
By the middle of the 18th century, however, European printed cottons began to rival those from India. The painting and dyeing of cotton was a painstaking and exacting process and could not be rushed without sacrificing quality. As Daniel Havart, a VOC official on the Coromandel Coast of India, complained in 1689, its production “goes with the slowness of the world, just like snails that move, but don’t seem to make progress.” European manufacturers could produce domestic chintz much faster, and more cheaply, and could adapt their designs more easily to respond to the whims of fashion.
Although European cotton manufacturers could — ostensibly — print any design they desired, the influence of Indian patterns was undeniable. The desire for printed cottons “according to the East Indian manner” is what initially drove the industry. The baby jacket pictured above might appear, at first glance, to be made from Indian chintz, but is in fact fashioned from a European printed cotton!
Even today, the appeal of these delightful fabrics is undeniable. I wouldn’t mind stepping out in that gorgeous wentke. Would you?
Selections from the Veldman-Eecen Collection will be on view as part of the exhibition, Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age, February 27–June 5, 2016.