a very colorful history of tie-dye, from woodstock to ‘wayne’s world’

How psychedelic DIY swirls became a symbol of the counterculture and a stoner staple.

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Mar 16 2016, 6:05pm

Janis Joplin, 1970. Getty Images.

Like Birkenstocks, tie-dye was once a fashion exclusively owned by your Deadhead cousin. But recently, like your cousin when he first discovered Jerry Garcia, tie-dye has been reborn. I've spotted it on models, on emerging surf-pop musicians, and on downtown New Yorkers who eat California-inspired health food. How did the crunchiest look around go from granola to genuinely cool?

Janis Joplin is the spiritual mother of tie-dye as we know it. Along with Joe Cocker and John Sebastian, who tie-dyed his own underwear, Joplin played Woodstock in August 1969 wearing garments covered in kaleidoscopic swirls.

While tie-dye has its roots in ancient forms of "resist-dyeing" (see: traditional West African textiles, pre-Columbian Peruvian fabrics, and Japanese shibori), Woodstock made it a countercultural icon and a lifestyle choice — specifically, one that involved drugs, free love, and music parents hated.

In the early 1960s, Rit Dye, the supermarket dye still used today, was about to go out of business when Don Price, a marketer at the company, saw an opportunity to introduce the brand to some creative types he'd located in Greenwich Village. He advised Rit to replace its boxed powders with squeezable liquid dyes, better for creating multicolor designs. And when he heard about Woodstock, he funded artists to make several hundred tie-dye T-shirts to be sold at the festival. Rit became the official hippie dye. The arrival of a generation of young people interested in psychedelic patterns saved the company from bankruptcy.

Ann Thomas, a former Capitol Records copywriter later known as "Tie-Dye Annie," and Maureen Mubeem, an artist, both believed in tie-dye's spiritual potential. Frequently collaborating, they became tie-dye gurus. Informed by astrology and color theory, Mubeem made custom pieces for the Rolling Stones and Michael Butler, the producer of Hair. "For a Virgo, I'd make a more intricate pattern," she told counterculture magazine Rags in 1970. Choosing colors, she explained, "has to do with your sensitivity or your absorption rate of other people's vibrations."

Tie-dye far outlasted the Summer of Love. Rit ushered the look into high fashion, encouraging designers to incorporate tie-dye fabrics by Rit-approved artists Will and Eileen Richardson into their collections. Model Marisa Berenson posed in a tie-dyed kaftan by Halston in Vogue in 1970, and Ali McGraw was spotted in a tie-dye blouse while walking down Fifth Avenue the following year. Soon, kids were hosting tie-dye parties in suburban backyards across America.

Tie-dye had another wave of popularity at the tail end of the 1980s, in Manchester warehouses during the Second Summer of Love (substitute MDMA for LSD, Soul II Soul for Jefferson Airplane). But by July 1992, Kurt Cobain was telling the publication Melody Maker, "I wouldn't wear a tie-dyed T-shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia." Tie-dye's lasting association with the flower children was a mixed blessing. For Cobain, tie-dye symbolized the failure of the hippie generation—"they gave up," he once said. For an awkward teenage Chelsea Clinton, who appeared in several baggy tie-dye garments that same year, it was the opposite: a symbol of idealism to hold on to.

That's the power of tie-dye: More than any one movement, it represents individualism.

Rayanne Graff wore it in My So-Called Life, so did Garth in Wayne's World, and Kanye West in the video for "Bound 2." During recent shows at New York Fashion Week, I've seen it on the runways of Alexander Wang and Rodarte. And if you're a Deadhead, it never went away. Tie-dye is the most Tumblr of fashion trends: It's nostalgic, iconic, endlessly variable, and for $4 you can DIY.

This article appears in the March issue of VICE Magazine.

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Text Alice Newell-Hanson