From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Chintz was broadcast on 2nd October 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
‘Oh chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,’ runs a line in John Betjeman’s poem Death in Leamington, published in 1932. It encapsulates a genteel interior with its china ornaments and floral fabrics. That cheeriness is ironic; he means cheerlessness. But why chintzy? And come to that, what exactly is chintz?
Strictly speaking chintz is polished cotton and its origins stretch back more than five hundred years. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit for spotted, and in India pieces of decorated fabric were known as chints (with an s). These early fabrics used calico, named after the town in Kerala where it originated, Calicut, which was then printed with a variety of designs, mainly flowers or abstract shapes. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the Malabar Coast in 1498 and he took several samples of the fabrics back to Europe. They were a sensation, thanks to their rich colours using natural dyes such as indigo and cochineal: Dutch and Portuguese companies started to import them, along with the abundant spices that Da Gama had found there. The fabrics were first used for bedcoverings and curtains but by the mid-1600s had become popular for clothing. So popular, in fact, that first the French in 1686 and then the British in 1720 banned their importation, fearing they would harm home-grown industries. It was a call for factories to step up, which they did, with the looms of the new industrial mills churning out fabrics that were much cheaper. Chintz had truly arrived. Floral designs were always a favourite, providing a hint of nature in the increasingly urbanised landscape.
The glazed effect was given by running the cotton fabric through rollers, one running at a higher rate to give the polished effect. It meant fabrics could be wiped clean, adding practicality to their prettiness. Their immense popularity had a dark cost, of course, as the cotton was provided by the slave-driven plantations of America. Mass-production was at odds with the Arts and Crafts movement which preferred fabrics that expressed the weave but by the turn of the twentieth century, chintz was everywhere, and in every quality. By Betjeman’s time chintzy was used to describe the kind of tawdry mass-produced tat that filled people’s homes, and new textiles like rayon and moquette began to take over as furnishing fabrics.
Chintz was revived in the new appreciation of Victorian decoration in the 1970s, with companies such as Laura Ashley and more upmarket brands evoking English country houses and vases filled with flowers. Sloane Rangers in the 1980s embraced sprigged-print dresses and lacy collars, as typified by the young Lady Diana before her marriage. By the end of the century, though, chintz had become high fashion with designers like Versace elevating it in dynamic colour combinations. No longer relegated to old fashioned boudoirs but celebrated for its flamboyance, it remains a link to early European exploration and a marker of taste in all its forms. Cheery or cheerless, it’s up to you.