Seeing Tie Dye Everywhere? There’s a Scientific Explanation for That

Brie Schwartz
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Oprah Magazine

My childhood playground was my father’s T-shirt factory in Yonkers. Instead of asphalt, cigarette butts and snapped rubber bands were underfoot, and in lieu of monkey bars, I could choose from four silk screen machines to climb on. (But of course I didn’t. That would be imprudent.) In the center of the warehouse was an assembly line of folks scrunching fabric into intricate folds, then dosing them with industrial sized squirt bottles of color that would later turn into the tie dyed garments my dad would wholesale—and attempt to outfit me in.

It was the 90s, and tie dye was as ubiquitous as Tamogatchis. If you weren’t cloaked in dancing Grateful Dead bears or a rainbow splattered Absolute Camp shirt, you weren’t part of the zeitgeist. And...I hated it. I thought the fashions my dad foisted on me were tacky, in so much as a 10-year-old who exclusively wore oversized cereal-brand t-shirts tucked into her Umbro bike shorts could consider something tasteless.

Photo credit: courtesy
Photo credit: courtesy

But now that tie dye is having another renaissance, I’ve been consumed by a quest to find the perfect pastel sleep shirt in a Shibori pattern. The fact that I’m served Instagram ads hourly from brands trying to draw me in, and fed email subject lines from retailers I keep forgetting to unsubscribe from (thanks, Target. I guess it is time to "dive into a tie dye swimsuit") hasn’t helped me to stop dreaming in spirals. What I once considered gaudy, I now scour the internet for, hoping to find the one corner where said shirt isn’t sold out. And according to Google trends, my search history isn’t unique.

Interest in “tie dye loungewear” is up by 5,000 percent since last year. The volume of searches began to spike in March, around the time nationwide quarantine measures were put in place and non-frontline workers began adjusting to the new normal of staying home. Since then, search— in particular for "tie dye masks" and "sweat sets"—has continued to climb.

But besides folks, like me, who think online shopping is recreation enough, at the same time, searches have also surged amongst makers. Over on Pinterest, interest in the term "tie dye crafts" has grown 13 times since last June. And, searches for “tie dye at home” have increased by over 462 percent since this time last year, according to Larkin Brown, Pinterest Experience Researcher and In House Stylist. Lately, pinners have made the seasonal shift to tie dye bikinis (up 8X since last summer) and pool-ready tie dye towels (up 6X).

Photo credit: Liquid Blue
Photo credit: Liquid Blue

While tie dye is one of the most ancient forms of decorating cloth—with roots in India, Japan, Indonesia, and West Africa—according to Amber Butchart, fashion historian and creator of A Stich in Time, its current incarnation is reminiscent of the style we first saw in the 60s. At that point, as you may recall, it was the unofficial dress code for the counterculture, broadcasting peace and love. But, that DIY appeal has roots in capitalism: The trend began when a marketer at Rit, the preeminent fabric dye manufacturer that's been in production since 1918, funded artists to make hundreds of tie dye shirts with their liquid squeeze dyes, to be sold at the original Woodstock festival.

Before that, Rit was mostly known for their boxes of single shade powder dye, but the liquid formula made it possible to easily create multicolor designs, which were put on display at the legendarily muddy gathering.

Photo credit: Rit
Photo credit: Rit

From there, “Tie dye became a symbol of psychedelia, foregrounding a homemade aesthetic that became a kind of anti-fashion fashion,” Buchart says.

And now, it’s as if this style has become the pandemic’s uniform—uniting us while we’re all “home together” (or, um, drinking al fresco together) in the fight against the coronavirus.

Even though tie dye has made its mark on the runways for the past few seasons—with Prada, Prabal Gurung, and Stella McCartney's spring 2019 collections and Christian Dior’s spring 2020 collection leading the charge—“Quarantine Fashion” a.k.a. everyone wearing sweatpants—put the trend into overdrive, propelling it into the mainstream, explains Robin Beck Nazarro, O, the Oprah Magazine's Fashion Market Director.

Photo credit: Victor VIRGILE
Photo credit: Victor VIRGILE

And, because tie dye is something that can be DIY'ed inexpensively, suddenly that runway-inspired tracksuit seen on J.Lo, and the tie dye fashions worn by the young influential model set—Hailey Bieber, Kaia Gerber, and Emily Ratajkowski, to name a few—seem approachable, Nazzaro adds.

Style expert and E! News host Lilliana Vazquez notes that if you follow these celebs, whose popular street style has become home style, "one of the nice things about quarantine is that everything they're wearing is now accessible, because for once, they're not at fancy fashion parties. They're home, just like us." When she first noted the trend on social media, Vazquez says, "I remember thinking, maybe I can't buy those $400 sweats, but I can figure out a way to make that."


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Further breaking it down, Vazquez, who has a new podcast about makers, explains: "With tie dye, two different sectors of influencers crossed. First, there are your fashion influencers who want to look super cute—and what’s cuter at this time than a matching tie dye sweat suit? And then, you have people at home who are super creative, and because tie dye is such a low knowledge skill, a lot of people just picked it up. So you had a combination of fashion influencers and crafty influencers coming together and before you knew it, it was all of our feeds."

"Some people chose sour dough, and fashion people chose tie dye," Vazquez says.

Fashion influencer Candace Hampton (@thebeautybeau) adds that once more mass market stores and affordable online boutiques caught onto the trend, they began partnering with social media ambassadors through affiliate programs to advertise their wares, which could also explain why tie dye ads have been dominating your feeds. "It's a win for consumers because the prices of these products are much cheaper that what's shown on the runways, and a win for influencers because they make a percentage of the sale when someone buys from their post," she explains.




Dawnn Karen, Founder of the Fashion Psychology Institute and author of Dress Your Best Life, credits the resurgence of the trend to the idea that people want to feel like they’re all “members of a tribe.” She says: “If we’re wearing the same thing that we all see on social media, we’re all part of the same accord. We have a sense of belonging.” Now that many of us aren’t beholden to dress codes, this particular trend also allows us to dress without boundaries, using the colors to uplift our moods, she adds.

For those DIY’ers who are willing to get their hands, and err, floors dirty, the beauty of tie dye (besides the fact that it's affordable) is that every time you make it, your result is different because it all comes down to how the rubber bands are secured. “It gives you a sense of individuality since no two results will be the same,” says Dr. Carolyn Mair, Behavioral Psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion.

It also allows us to fully embrace irreverence, reminding ourselves that while the results are out of our control, the process is something we can do mindfully. Of course, to mass produce his garments, my father found a way to create (mostly) precise designs, but for the average person during a Sunday crafternoon, there’s an inherent excitement derived from the chaos—from not being able to fully predict the outcome. In fact, dopamine rises during the phase between tying the bands, and seeing the final product, Mair explains.

Echoing Karen’s point, Mair also adds that tie dye lends itself perfectly to the notion that we all want to “blend in and yet stand out simultaneously. It’s a fundamental aspect of being human,” she says. We can be in the same community, while still maintaining our own sense of self.

Beyond our collective need for some type of a creative outlet, there’s also a psychological reason tie dye has suddenly become so popular: embracing nostalgia is good for our mental health.

Dr. Clay Routledge, author of Nostalgia, a Psychological Resource, and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, has found in his research that nostalgia has mood boosting effects. “We draw security and comfort from the past,” he says. But also, “while it sounds counter-intuitive to look to the past for new ideas, nostalgia can be a source of inspiration for the future,” he explains.

He adds: “Nostalgia doesn’t just make people feel happier. It makes them feel more connected, energized, and motivated.”

Though Routledge’s expertise isn’t exactly in the sartorial realm, his theory tracks. O, the Oprah Magazine’s Style Director, Adam Glassman echoes that sentiment.

“The pattern gives us comfort and reminds those who were around in the late '60s and early '70s about a more carefree time,” Glassman says. “The younger generation is always drawn to ‘vintage or throwback’ styles, but this time the shades are more modern and fresh—many are mixed with white, and pastels or candy colors.” Plus, he adds that new wave looks splendid with white jeans...if you can manage to avoid condiments for the rest of summer.

Of course, wearing a tie dye garment isn’t the secret to keeping us strong during this period of major uncertainty. But any activity that sparks a modicum of happiness—be it dripping dye all over an old tee, or spending time shopping for a shirt on sale—is a worthy endeavor. And if it brings out the kid, or free-spirited teen in you, if only for a moment, even better.

If you’re wondering, I did finally find that elusive tie dye garment. Since bras are cancelled, I opted for a thick sherbet colored pullover with a GAP logo, similar to something I would have sported in the '90s, minus the pattern. I wore it when I finally saw my dad after months of quarantining. True to form, he asked me why I would ever pay for it when he has dozens collecting mold in a shed somewhere. But then we got to reminiscing.

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