Since the heyday of Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin, tie-dye has been the patron pattern of hippie culture, for better or for worse. More than 50 years after the emergence of tie-dye in America, it still stands for counterculture, free love, and a life of experimentation. Though Americans associate tie-dye first and foremost with Woodstock and the Summer of Love, dying techniques similar to tie-dye were cropping up in China and Japan as early as the 500s C.E. These dyes were made by steeping flowers and herbs in boiling water and were reserved for the clergy and the wealthy. Various techniques similar to tie-dye have appeared around the globe at different points in history. For example, in India, a technique called “bandhana” involved intricate patterns made utilizing dyes while Africans dyed many of their garments, and are still known for their indigo dye pits today.
Although a number of cultures had dying approaches with varying levels of complexity, and tie-dye was employed in the United States as early as 1909, tie-dye as an American countercultural trend began exactly where and when you would have expected: in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Don Price, a marketing employee working for the parent company of the failing Rit Dye saw an opportunity to change his company’s fortunes. Price encouraged the company to move from boxed dies to squeezable liquid. With more manageable packaging, Price headed downtown to pedal his wares in the hip neighborhoods of southeast Manhattan.
Price had success marketing tie-dyed shirts to members of the burgeoning hippie counterculture throughout the ’60s, but the trend really took off after hundreds of shirts made their way to Woodstock in the summer of 1969. The style was everywhere at the festival, including on Janis Joplin, who wore tie-dye while she performed. Tie-dye was now forever entwined with this particular cultural moment. After the festival, musicians and record company employees were flocking to tie-dye as a fashion statement and spiritual expression.
By the late ’60s and early ’70s the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, and many others joined Joplin in sporting tie-dye threads. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, psychological and psychedelic thinkers notorious for their experiments with mind-expanding substances, are seen tie-dying a shirt in the documentary Magic Trip.
Since this era dovetailed with the anti-Vietnam War peace movement, tie-dye also came to be associated with peaceful resistance. The high point of tie-dye culture came in roughly 1970, around the time of a Time Magazine article on the style, which attributed the fashion to “the flower children of California” and described the colors and patterns as “pure psychedelia.”
The massive appeal of tie-dye in the period around the Summer of Love cemented the style as a cultural touchstone symbolic of the ideals of that moment. Cultural moments like the New Wave ’80s and the jam-band resurgence overseen by Phish in the ’90s saw a comeback for tie-dye as young people felt the same sense of rebellion against the mainstream that prior generations had felt.
As with all trends that began in the counterculture, high fashion has appropriated tie-dye at various points. Halston, Dior, and Donald Brooks have all incorporated tie-dye into their runway shows or seasonal lines at one point or another. In recent years, tie-dye has also gotten a dose of cool as streetwear companies like Supreme and Stüssy—in collaboration with Flatbush Zombies—have made use of it. Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and Tyler, the Creator have all rocked it, inspiring their legions of fans to do the same.
Despite these developments in style, tie-dye remains firmly a symbol of an ideal of peace and exploration that has outlasted any particular time or place.