Words Laura Bannister

A history of the world (in four pairs of jeans)

The G-Star RAW Elwood X25 denim collection has 25 new treatments, each of which feels like a mirror held to mankind.

In their latest drop of the Elwood X25 jean, the Dutch clothing company has created 25 new prints reflecting moments in design and art history, as well as in the natural world, be it nods to tartan worn by the royal House of Stewart, the distinctive Fleur-de-Lys motif long associated with the French monarchy, or the splodgy, acidic yellow and black dots that climb across the body of the ageing Bumblebee Poison Frog.

Here, Museum explores four of these print journeys.

Left: Railroad tracks across the top of a bridge, with the City of Casper and refinery in the background, at The Chicago and Northwestern Railway. Right: Traditional patterns reinterpreted as the G-Star RAW Elwood X25 in Wabash Stripe Print

The workman’s stripe

In 1907, the Mechanics Monthly Journal—an American trade rag—ran a full-page black-and-white advertisement for high-grade Brotherhood Overalls. It sat between other classifieds that talked to working men: calls to enlist in the Navy, to buy a lady a diamond on credit, ads for Paine’s celery compound (used to steady the hands), or heavy-duty soap (to remove all kinds of grime). Brotherhood Overalls were too designed for men who laboured. Their railroad style featured a high back, wide suspenders, and secret pockets to hold valuables. They were made of thick, unbreakable Everett denim, made to get dirty, to be worn in the heat.

The most distinctive feature of Brotherhood Overalls however, was their “genuine Stifel indigo Wabash stripe”: tiny white vertical stripes bleached into their fabric through a process known as discharge printing. This wasn’t a design unique to them—it was a trademark of the times. In the late 1800s and 1900s, American railroads abounded with labourers clad in this simple pattern. While its precise origins are unknown, the tall thin strips-on-denim became synonymous with the working class in this period, a sign of quality and grit, a unity of man and machine.

Left: First World War troop ship SS Empress of Russia, with dazzle markings, in 1918. Right: The G-Star RAW Elwood X25 in Dazzle Camouflage print

The confusing vessel

When it was first adopted by the British in WW1, razzle-dazzle—or dazzle camouflage—was quite unlike any other method of warfare obfuscation. Google ‘razzle dazzle ships’ and you’ll find pictures of enormous vessels painted like modernist canvases: seaworthy hunks of metal, given zebra-like treatments in black, grey and white, or doused in brilliant colour, all featuring unique jumbles of stripes that curve or meet at jagged angles. It is, of course, impossible to hide a ship completely via paint; the concept here was to confuse the enemy, by disrupting the outlines of a ship and flattening the appearance of any solid shape (making range-finding impossible). Allegedly championed by British zoologist John Graham Kerr, whose recommendations to First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill was largely rejected, razzle-dazzle was later made popular by marine painter Norman Wilkinson. Its effectiveness was difficult to measure—these ships were attacked more frequently but they were often larger.

Left: A Persian silk brocade with a golden thread with a repeating Persian paisley motif, woven by Master Abdollah Salami, 1939. Right: The G-Star RAW Elwood X25 in Indian Paisley Print

The ancient motif

In 2017, paisley pops up in all kinds of places: on jewellery, on carpets, on stationary, on the ties of men in black suits, on near-weightless cotton dresses worn through sunny beachside towns. Its teardrop shape is reminiscent of a plant motif called buta (or bud). The story of this elaborate pattern—and its spread throughout Europe—is really a story of the world and its complexities: of colonialism, trade and cultural exchange, of advancements in textile printing, of admiration and imitation in design. Originating in Persia, paisley shapes were also popular in India, appearing on silk and wool Kashmir shawls. By the 1600s, England began mass-producing the almond-like patterns they’d imported from the East India Company; they’d become commercially popular in Europe, and the numbers of Indian-made products shipped over couldn’t meet a growing demand. Eventually, around 1800, weavers in the Scottish town of Paisley became leading regional producers of shawls that featured the pattern—though the number of hues they could produce wasn’t quite as expansive as those woven in Kashmir.

Left: Delftware plaque with chinoiserie, used as a wall decoration. Completed by an unknown artist between c. 1680 and 1700. Right: G-Star RAW’s interpretation, which draws on typical blue hues—realised on the Elwood X25 in Chinoiserie Print

The adaptation

They say (who exactly they were to begin with, we’re not sure) that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Chinoiserie perhaps fits this category. The word is borrowed from the French word chinois, or ‘Chinese’, and refers to a broad-brush European interpretation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions during European colonial expansion: all exotic birds and fanciful pavilions, decorative latticework, dragons and elegant pagodas. Often, early practitioners of this asymmetrical aesthetic (who moved between architecture, sculpture, painting and fabric printing) had no idea what these original artifacts actually looked like, let alone had visited parts of Asia themselves. They were enticed instead by the idea of the ‘other’—of Far East leisure activities, of differences in nature, of objects and pursuits presumed to be typical of another culture.

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