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Fashion archive: Don’t knock the smock

Fashion trends to behave like a capricious child, howling for what is least practical and reasonable and to hell with the consequences. Take the Gatsby cult: there was Britain groaning over its economic doom and fashion was blithely advocating a return to the days when ladies were content with nothing less than silks and satins, beads and boas and a few old-fashioned diamonds to go with it. And now we’ve had Paris decreeing abundant use of the natural fibres for next autumn when we’ve all been warned they’re in short supply.

So this summer’s fashion for cheesecloth and calico is undoubtedly one of the most logical and sensible both from a financial point of view – in what other fabric can you buy a long dress for under £4? – and because the sheer simplicity of the fabric provides a pleasant antidote to the stylised gloss of the twenties and thirties clothes. The look has been criticised as the antithesis of fashion, but that criticism is being manifestly contradicted by some of the top designers such as Emmanuelle Kahn, who has produced a range of immaculately cut smock dresses and peasant blouses in cheesecloth, and Christopher McDonnell, who has used calico for dresses, and even the cheaper end of the market has improved beyond recognition on last year’s cheesecloth.

But the most glaring question in this fashion boom, relying on vast supplies of pure cotton, is how it has happened at a time when a shortage of natural fibres has been widely reported, following a buying run during the economic crisis.

The answer, according to the International Institute of Cotton, is that cheesecloth and calico are both essentially low quality clothes which use up the yarn unfit for higher grade fabrics. This is truest of cheesecloth which, like the mackerel, feeds exclusively off waste. Until the cult for the ethnic came into vogue this flimsy, loose weave material designed originally for wrapping cheeses up, would hardly have been appreciated as a way of chic.

Calico, although strictly a cheap and cheerful material, fares better than cheesecloth with same graded yarn in its content. It also has the edge historically, being first recorded in India in the second millennium BC when it was used as a dress material in the Madras province of Calicut – from which both the name of the cloth and Calcutta are said to have come. Even then similarities with today were remarkable – the cloth was coloured with mordant painting, much as today’s clothes are often printed with small designs.

But calico did not always have an easy time; in 1716 there were 30 laws prohibiting the import of the stuff – not because it represented any moral threat to society but because the use of wool was being protected.

We have selected a range of cheesecloth and calico which represents roughly the price spectrum: at Biba they have in cheesecloth long sun dresses and wrap round skirts for £3.95 as do many of the Portobello and King’s Road boutiques; Hampstead and Richmond Bazaar and shops like Stock, Peter Robinson, and John Lewis have the slightly better designed, minimally pricier clothes which demonstrate the way in which cloth is effectively used for stylish clothes and at the other end of the market are the top designer outfits which are made from the pick of the cheap fabrics and sell at high prices.

The additional bonus to this fashion is that the clothes are almost all cheap enough to be worn and enjoyed for just one season and discarded without guilty conscience at the end.

The Guardian, 25 June 1974. Click on image to see full article

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