Indigo.You’ve probably never given it a moment’s thought. But if you own a pair of blue jeans, it’s in your closet. And its use is universal. It’s been used in the most humble work clothes and the most elegant designs.
The current exhibition, “Indigo – un périple bleu” (“Indigo – A Blue Journey”), at the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris’ 4th arrondissement through May 2, traces the history and use of indigo. Three hundred articles of clothing and accessories from all over the world are displayed in four large exhibition rooms. The stream of visitors to the exhibition attests to the strong interest in the subject.
Indigo has been used in dying for over 4,000 years. But the fact that the dye matter itself is invisible makes it all the more remarkable that people all over the world discovered the hidden secret of the hundreds of varieties of blue-dye plants. The process of creating the dye is the same the world over. The plant, cultivated or wild, is harvested; the pigment is extracted; a dye bath is prepared; and the cloth is dyed. Oxygen from the atmosphere plays an important role in the final step that turns the extracted pigment blue.
In the 12th century blue was the preferred color of Japanese samurai, and one of the oldest garments in the exhibition is a man’s jacket from Japan made of a fabric called “kuzufu”, woven from the fibers of the kudzu plant. The fabric is light and diaphanous. In Europe, woad, a flower and a natural insecticide, was the only source of blue dye until Marco Polo discovered the trade routes to the Far East, and Europe began importing indigo, around the beginning of the 16th century. Napoleon encouraged the growing of woad to supply blue dye for French military uniforms, and the dye continued to be used in military uniforms and flags during World War I and later.
Every kind of work clothes have been dyed blue, as have almost every kind of fabric. This includes, of course, blue jeans. In the mid-1800s, Levi Strauss used an indigo-dyed fabric called “serge de Nîmes” to manufacture his signature blue jeans. The name of the fabric was shortened to “de Nîmes,” or “from Nîmes,” which evolved into the word “denim”. As other companies, like Wrangler, started to compete with Levi’s jeans, the company began to sew a label onto the back pocket to distinguish it from its rivals, making it the first garment with a brand label. The word “jeans” itself is derived from the name of the city Gênes, a manufacturing center of blue fabric.
In 1878, Adolf von Baeyer, a German chemist and Nobel Prize winner, invented synthetic indigo, and today, the majority of indigo used is synthetic. But there is a growing movement to return to the use of natural dyes, including indigo. For
example, in 2007, Martine Grégoire and her husband, Jean Paul Grégoire, founded Couleurs Vegetales de Provence in Lauris, France, with the intention of bringing back to the region the cultivation of plants that produce indigo. In 2014, they began producing the pigment and a line of linen shirts, tee-shirts, and scarves. But other producers are springing up, as well. India, for example, which once produced the greatest variety of indigo and which earned enormous sums exporting it until the 19th century, is once again producing the pigment. And in fact, part of the intention of the exhibition is to safeguard the textile traditions related to indigo and its decorative techniques. There is even an effort by some countries to have indigo included in the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The diversity of the items displayed in the exhibition is remarkable, each creation unique to its culture. The fact that the designs are immediately recognizable as belonging to certain cultures is evidence of both the infinite creativity of humankind and how cultures make an element of design their own.
For those interested in more details about indigo, there is a lecture every Saturday at 3:00 p.m. It’s packed with information and well worth the time. In addition, the exhibition catalog, available in French and English, contains a wealth of information about the history of, and techniques used in creating indigo. The enthusiasm of its author, Catherine Legrand, who also curated the exhibition, is clearly apparent.
The Bibliothèque Forney, which houses the exhibition, is located in the fifteenth century Hôtel de Sens and is one of the sixteen specialized libraries run by the city of Paris. The Bibliothèque Forney specializes in the decorative arts, crafts, fashion, design, and graphic arts, and houses 230,000 books, posters, and magazines in almost every language.
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