For a term that has a commonplace connotation that usually associates it with gaudy and such adjectives not particularly appealing, the allure of chintz as a fabric of yore however spans a rather dignified heritage rooted in the awareness of culture. That, despite the fact that the documented history of this piece of cloth is rather recent, spanning just a few hundred years even when its precise origins can be traced back thousands of years in the past. The aberration in the variation of its name is also a surprising case in itself- while any mention of chintz unfailingly evokes a vision of floral motifs, exuberant colors, glazed expanses, with attributes like loud and extravagant unmistakably singling it out from the many expressions of fabric as a rather cheap, tasteless vision that though has made room for itself across many a facet of the modern human lifestyle, the real essence of chintz lies in being merely a fabric of cottony prominence to which such substances of the mordant and resists are applied to let the dye adhere to its body. Defined essentially by this use of the dyeing agent was chintz in its basic identity, the intricate patterns of which shaped up as painstaking works of art produced either through carved blocks of wood or even more intricately and artistically through the exquisite process of pen crafting, colloquially known as kalamkari.
The origins of the nomenclature of chintz though testify in greater, but not exact measure the contemporary curation of it. Believed to have originated long back in the lands of what comprises the India and the Pakistan of today, the name of this fabric is a derivation on the Hindi word chint, meaning “‘spotted’, ‘variegated’, ‘speckled’, or ‘sprayed’”, referring thus to a cloth printed with small and colorful flowery designs. Originally made from printed and glazed cotton, with such motifs as flowers and other patterns in a multitude of brilliant colors, this rather ordinary premises upon which chintz came to exercise its dominance on the world dominion unfurled though as a very striking kaleidoscope of such elements that indeed turned out to be catchy in all its beckonings. Its origin however remains untraced, but resident in much more clarity of its continuance through the trails of textile history is this ‘charismatic clamour’ that chintz soon came to define.
It was only in the times from the very late 15th century and more prominently from the 16th century onwards that the flair of chintz asserted upon the world the unmissable play of its aesthetics. Beginning with Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India in 1498 from where the fabric unfolded across the expanse of Europe over the course of the following years, chintz began to rake up global reputation. But before the very discernible European fetish for chintz endowed the Indian textile with a distinct legacy of its own, it had been the Asian nations of Indonesia, Japan and present day Malaysia where the lustrous span of the rich fabric commanded it a worth that was equated to something as precious as gold.
This association of the luxurious cloth with the golden metal though found expression also in the European context through the alleys of trade facilitated by a three tiered dimension of business leanings. Buying the Indian chintz by paying for it in terms of gold, these merchants of Europe would barter with certain Asian countries the fabric for spice meant for sale in their own continent, thus paving the way for a low cost exhibit of exotic brilliance to venture along its own trail in the foreign land that would go on to imprint even there its legacy of grandeur. The rather remarkable visual that chintz afforded in its essence as being a fabric of eye catching prominence however did not allow it yet to assert its boldness in the realms of fashion, serving though its purpose of immense allure spread out across many an assertion of home decor choices. As the distinctive flash of brilliance that chintz essentially encompasses as an integral element of it revealed in all exuberance across the length and breadth of luxurious carpets, from top to bottom of elegant wallcoverings as well as across the spread of quilts and bedcovers and of course creating an elegant aura of charming reckonings through their ample decoration of wall hanging, the very idea of home decor came to embody a certain characteristic of its own as well. In spurring therefore a definitive trend in home furnishing that set out to rule the overall style of life and living not just then but also across the times, sporadically but very visibly, chintz established itself as a charm of such caterings that harboured it in its standout presence the power to capture and captivate the human fancy.
The unmissable presence that chintz had established in the European hinterland by then by virtue of its rather common appearance across a range of home elements endowed it with further appeal that translated well also into the fashion consciousness of the mid 17th century people. Whether it be the royal preferences of the aristocracy or the style sensibilities of the common folk, chintz found classic expression as an item of fashion all over Europe though the common perception prevails of it having been first sewn into dresses by the maidservants there from passed on pieces of furnishings. Much like its substantial basis in the category of home decor, chintz established as unique a position of its own also along the corridors of the fashion world, spanning out quite the revolutionary phenomenon of what can be termed the first ever mass fashion trend.
The growing global vision that chintz was commanding by then through its incredible positioning of style in a manner lesser encountered typically posed though a problem to the European merchants who had for long coveted the brilliance of its lustre. As less expensive, more charming chintz began to capture greater share in the market, the demand for local textiles as well as other variants of fabric declined pushing therefore producers and manufacturers of them to lose sleep over the competition afforded by the exceptional show of the Indian fabric. In fact so dire was the state of affairs prevailing in many a European nations that several of them banned outright the import of Indian chintz into their premises. France was the first country to initiate a ban on chintz in 1686, followed by England in 1720 partially banning the use of the fabric. Other nations also imposed regulations on chintz in different measures including the likes of Spain, Venice, Prussia, and the Ottoman Empire that led to the much demanded fabric instead being smuggled into many parts of the European continent.
This inevitable demand to have to cater to fashion needs emergent from the fabric resulted therefore in the production of imitations of it mostly in Britain during the 1700s. But over the years as the desire for minimalism set in and the turning spokes of the fashion wheel made chintz appear as more extravagant a manifestation of wearable style, the grandeur of the fabric was limited to adorn instead the more interior promenades of homes and spaces. Today reminiscent of an assertion of style attributed to a time of the recent past, that which has earned it an identity steeped in our grandmother’s sensibility of design and decor, the modern day worth of chintz manifests still in more contemporary reimaginations of it, most notably the Grandmillenial style of interior design that pushes plush, comfy sofas decked up with warm prints of floral recollections tied to the glamour of what chintz has always been understood to embody against also as bedecked walls of vivid patterns and bright colors as incorporating of the ‘gaudy’ vibe, while allowing also for more subtle assertions of modern day chartings to further let the chintzy clamour stand out in all its vibrancy.
This notion of chintz expanded to such extents that made it almost synonymous with flashy displays of too exuberant a style manifestation can perhaps be attributed to 19th century novelist George Elliot whose interpretation was based on some of the imitation pieces of this style of fabric. Being thus inextricably tied to floral flourishes of excessive glazing that was quite a bit different from the rich and luxuriant essence in which the authentic fabric developed in the Indian mainland brought upon chintz its today popular boisterous identity of something that references excessiveness in appearance. Far from the refined, sophisticated vision of what was afforded by this rather tough fabric that neither frayed nor discolored easily, resistant as it was even to many a stains that would have marred the allure of its vibrancy, the chintz was made to pursue instead a lesser legacy that was a far cry from the time consuming, elaborate and meticulous tradition in which it was crafted to shiny perfection. Beyond however what is apparent to the eyes from the unleashing of this beauty of immense measures, the fabric also is significant in its heritage that shapes up as a convoluted identity of sorts. Subject to cultural appropriation while yielding still considerable influence on the course of history through its strands of slavery, colonialism and the like that make up the weave of this lightweight fabric of profound distinction, chintz has time and again stood for a kind of influence that it asserted even along its winding through disputed history. That speaks itself of the ‘character’ inherited by this dazzling bit of Indian fabric that hold its own every time it reveals itself as the spectacular showstopping spectacle that it was designed to be.