If you’re looking to add some colour to your life this half-term, then the place to go is Brighton Museum, which is currently hosting a free exhibition entitled ‘Indigo: A Blue To Dye For’. With puns like that, you just know it’s going to be good, and sure enough, what could have been a dull and tedious history of fabric-dyeing turned out to be an interesting and entertaining walk through the world of denim. It’s also the only cultural event in town where jeans are actively encouraged.
The blue dye familiar to lovers of Levis was originally extracted from the leaves of indigo-bearing plants, and the exhibition documents this process in a number of ways, from a model of a horse-powered woadmill, to a film about indigo dyeing (which is what you might call a blue movie). Most visually impressive, however, is a two-metre long model of an indigo factory in Bengal which was made for the Colonial & Indian Exhibition of 1886. On loan from Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, it illustrates the complete process of dye production and features more than a hundred individually carved figures. Although most of them are knee-deep in indigo, and look a bit like Smurfs.
Once you’ve extracted the dye, you’re ready to start making clothes, and the displays feature dozens of historical examples from all over the world, from an Egyptian child’s tunic which is over a thousand years old (and I thought some of my jeans were ancient) to items of denim clothing by Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen. There’s also one from Top Shop, but I’m not sure it’s quite as valuable.
One of the more unusual dyeing techniques is featured on a length of bark cloth from the Solomon Islands, which dates back to the 18th century. Indigo leaves and lime were chewed in the mouth and the resulting juice spat directly onto the cloth, where it was worked in with the fingers to make a pattern. It’s a technique which combines two of my favourite activities: eating and finger-painting, but it probably leaves your mouth looking like you’ve eaten a raspberry Slush Puppie, so I’m not sure it’s for me.
Also on display is one of 500 limited edition replicas of ‘The Nevada Jean’, the oldest pair of Levis known to man (although I don’t think they’ve looked in my wardrobe). The original pair date back to the 1880s, and were found in 1998 stuffed into a crevice in an old abandoned mine. The owner obviously didn’t like ironing. They were subsequently sold on Ebay in May 2001 for $46,532 and the winning bid was placed by Levi Strauss & Co themselves. I bet they regret selling them now.
The exhibition ends with a display of ‘Blue Art’, featuring a visually impressive textile art installation by Japanese artist Hiroyuki Shindo. If that doesn’t excite you, then there’s also a reproduction of The Turin Shroud done in denim.
As it’s currently half-term, there were a couple of extra events taking place during my visit. The first, entitled ‘Please Touch! Denim’ gave visitors the chance to handle some of the clothes from the Costumes & Textiles collection, while ‘Jean Genius’ allowed children to customise their own jeans using a variety of paints and materials. I stuck my head in the door, and the kids had quite a production line going, so give it a couple of hundred years and the results could be in glass cases as part of the next exhibition. Although having read about The Nevada Jean, I’m putting mine straight on Ebay.