Bridge 3: Material Archive Research

Gingham fabric, a decoration of interweaving colors in a checkered pattern, had been made for centuries throughout the world before French and Dutch colonialist spurred the production of it in in Europe in the seventeenth century. After it gained popularity there in the subsequent generations, it was brought to the United States, where it was integrated into American culture and was reproduced so prolifically in the twentieth century that it took on a distinctly American identity. Gingham’s prevalence in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s due to its utilitarian advantages and popularity in Hollywood films, its use in domestic life in the 1950s, and its presence in fashion trends of the 1960s, characterized the pattern as rural, simplistic, and patriotic.

Gingham has been used throughout the world for centuries, and takes on different meanings for different cultures. In Indonesia, for example, the contrasting colors symbolize the cosmological struggle between forces of good and evil. In the Philippines, Australia, and South Africa, gingham is used for school uniforms.[1] The word ‘gingham’ comes from the Malay word gingangg meaning ‘striped.’ It was introduced to England in the eighteenth century through cotton mills in Manchester, where it gained popularity.[2]

In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, gingham was seen as being indicative of country living. At first worn by the working class, the pattern was quickly appropriated by the wealthy who owned large houses in the countryside. In England today gingham is associated with country sports and outdoor activities like horseback riding, fishing, hunting, and gardening.[3] The French painter Pierre Bonnard, who lived and worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was known for his Post-Impressionist paintings of still-lifes, and scenes of country life and the everyday. [4] A series of dining room scenes painted by Bonnard throughout his life, often feature tables laid with red and white checkered tablecloths. The rendering of these tablecloths defines the scenes as comforting and simplistic; enhancing and distinguishing these familial scenes as lovingly rural. [5]

In the United States, nostalgia played an important role in the popularizing of gingham, as the pattern’s resurgence and trendiness consistently brought reminiscence and longing for better times. In the twentieth century, gingham took on a distinctly American identity through its associations with the Wild West, Hollywood, and wartime patriotism. In the interwar years during the Great Depression gingham was used frequently because of its durability and versatility. It could be used for light clothing in the spring and summer and made with wool for warmth in the fall and winter. During the Second World War, it reminded those of simpler, better times, and perhaps of the ingenuity and resilience of earlier generations of cowboys in the Wild West, and explorations of the American frontier.

Also during this time the designer Adrian Adolph Greenberg, known just as Adrian (and sometimes Gilbert Adrian), made gingham fashionable by incorporated the pattern into blockbuster films. Adrian was a well-known costume designer who worked on over 250 Hollywood films during the 1930s and 40s. Most noteworthy was The Wizard of Oz (1939), where Adrian used gingham for Dorothy’s famous blue dress.[6] The costume defines her as a humble farmer’s daughter displaced in a world of fantasy and magic, as the humble, rustic dress is juxtaposed to the splendor and awe of Oz. In 1944, Adrian, moving away from films, designed a dress that embraced American virtues of simplicity and modesty. The World War II era red and white cotton dress with blue eyelet detailing celebrates humble American values and invokes a sense of patriotism.[7]

In the 1950s, gingham became one of the most popular patterns for domestic appliances and accessories, showing up consistently in advertisements of the time.[8] The comforting, bright pattern was meant to encourage women to return to a domestic life after having jobs working for the war effort. The common red, white and blue colors incorporated a degree of patriotism, implying that it was a woman’s duty to her country was to return to the home, where she could better serve her country by providing emotional support for her husband and taking care of the children, members of the future generation. During the 1960s, gingham became a major fashion trend and was associated with youthfulness, as the pattern had been used through much of its existence for children’s clothing. Gingham largely disappeared from fashion trends after the 1960s, but reemerges in clothing in retro forms.[9] The pattern is still used today however, for a number of home goods, such as tablecloths, aprons, curtains, bedspreads, and napkins.[10]

Today, artists use the design to challenge assumptions of originality, the everyday man, and the kitsch. The artist Holly Farrell makes realistic paintings of plastic dolls[11], using red and white gingham dresses or wallpapers behind the dolls to emphasize a now cliché of American country life and rural simplicity, making the use of such a pattern in paintings kitsch. The artist Frank Selby addresses the idea of social unrest as a fundamental breakdown of communication between two parties. The piece Gingham, Pink and Blue (2013) by Frank Selby depicts a blown up, abstracted representation of what appears to be a man’s backside, with a checkered shirt tucked into denim jeans. The piece is a visual abstraction of the common victim and illuminator of social inequality: the workman. Here he is depicted with the same rustic pattern used to delineate simple American values, yet the pattern and the figure are abstracted, making their form unclear to the viewer.[12] Likewise, in situations of social unrest, communication and clarity are compromised, and the underdog is left underrepresented.

Gingham is a very common pattern throughout the world because of its versatility and durability. During the twentieth century, the pattern gained considerable popularity and eventually became seen in the West as distinctly American. Gingham is associated with simple values, rural living, American patriotism, youthfulness, and nostalgia.



Boyne, Julie. “Gingham Fabric, a Chequered History.” V is for Vintage.


Bonnard, Pierre. The Checkered Tablecloth. In “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1916.


Crompton, Simon. “When Style Becomes Costume.” Off the Cuff. A Suit that Fits.


Farrell, Holly. Tammy, Red Buttons. On Artsy, Inc., 2013


Gilbert, Adrian. Dress. In “The Collection Online.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944


Selby, Frank. Gingham, Pink and Blue. On, Artsy, Inc., 2013


The Stout Brothers. “History of Gingham.” Design Threads.


Whitaker, Jan. “Tablecloths’ Checkered Past.” Restaurant-ing Through History.

[1] Julie Boyn. “Gingham Fabric, a Checkered History.” V is for Vintage

[2] The Stout Brothers. “History of Gingham.” Design Threads.

[3] Simon Crompton. “When Style Becomes Costume.” Off the Cuff. A Suit that Fits.

[4] Pierre Bonnard. The Checkered Tablecloth, in “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[5] Jan Whitaker. “Tablecloths’ Checkered Past.” Restaurant-ing Through History.

[6] Julie Boyn. “Gingham Fabric, a Chequered History” V is for Vintage

[7] Gilbert, Adrian. Dres, in “The Collection Online.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

[8] Julie Boyn. “Gingham Fabric, a Chequered History” V is for Vintage

[9] Ibid

[10] The Stout Brothers. “History of Gingham.” Design Threads.

[11] Holly Farrell. Tammy, Red Buttons. On (Artsy, Inc.

[12] Frank Selby. Gingham, Pink and Blue, on (Artsy, Inc.,

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