Checks, please: Gingham is the fabric of the summer

CorrespondentJuly 2, 2014 

At Belk recently, a man pointed at a gingham shirt as an option for the woman with him. "Yeah, sure, like I want to look like a picnic," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

And what would be wrong with that?

Second to seersucker, gingham is the fabric of summer. It's fun in the sun, good times, and yes, a day on the grass in the park with fried chicken and potato salad.

"July is National Picnic Month," says Patrice George, assistant professor of textile development and marketing at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "When better than the Fourth to bring out the checks?"

Yes, she's being playful. But there's truth in those words too. Like denim - the nation's premiere fabric - gingham evokes Americana. And, by the way, gingham looks great with denim.

Perhaps the allure of gingham lies in its simple pattern, alternating squares of several sizes (but most popularly about a quarter of an inch) in white and another color.

On such a simple palette, many stories can be told, many emotions conveyed. Even before she uttered the words, Dorothy Gale's blue and white apron dress said "there's no place like home" in "The Wizard of Oz." Bombshell French actress Brigitte Bardot offered a sweet and sexy innocence in her 1959 gingham wedding dress. Sean Connery didn't seem any less cool or any less dangerous in his gingham shirt, when he portrayed James Bond in "From Russia With Love." This spring, on her Bangerz tour, Miley Cyrus conveyed tongue-in-cheek cornpone style with her gingham crop top paired with a high-cut pair of matching briefs. (It was an evolution from her "MTV Unplugged" look, a skin-tight gingham jumpsuit.)

On second thought, maybe that pattern isn't so simple. Maybe there's something about it that lures the eye.

"Now you're getting into psychology," says George. "People like balance; gingham is light and dark, ying and yang," she says. "The color and the white fool the eye a bit. It's binary and hypnotic."

Well, if gingham's checks put us into a kind of trance, Marcus Hawley has fallen under the spell. Last year, the Durham-based designer of Natty Neckware bought "a whole bunch" of gingham in various colors to turn them into bow ties for his customers. He says the line he dubbed "the gingham gang" was very well received, with several of the colors selling out.

"When you think about dressing up a little during the summer, I think of khaki," Hawley says. "But it's such a basic color. Gingham is the one thing that will make it pop. Gingham has an edge to it. It gives you style without going over the top. It's not too much, but just enough, you know?"

Hawley doesn't just sell gingham items, he owns some too. He lists teal, coral, red and blue gingham shirts in his wardrobe and the need to replace his purple one. He says the fabric has a classic Southern look. "People who are not expert with mixing patterns can look like it just by matching the colors in a gingham shirt," he says. "You can never go wrong with one."

George concurs. She collects gingham aprons and owns, among other pieces, a double-breasted gingham bathrobe from the 1940s. As a historian, she takes the long view, noting gingham's timelessness. "Gingham is an instant reminder of nostalgic times, it's your grandmother's apron, it's childhood," she says. "These days, there is so little nostalgia. We have so many objects and technology, people aren't looking so much at fabric."

As for the Belk shopper who pooh-poohed the gingham shirt, George offers this take: "Maybe she had bad food at a picnic," she says with a laugh. "Maybe the fried chicken made her sick."

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