How could a fabric that originated in India, was copied by Armenians, and outlawed in France become a symbol of Provence?
The kaleidoscope of cotton fabrics that punctuate the Provençal markets today, just seem to shout “southern France.” They are decorated with cicadas, olives, and flowers in colors that reflect the local landscape: sky blue, sunflower yellow, lavender purple, olive green, and reds reminiscent of the hills of Roussillon. What could be more Provençal?… Or Indian?
These vibrantly-colored textiles are called les indiennes (Indians). Their story begins in the mid-seventeenth century, when Armenian merchants, living in Marseille to take advantage of the port’s tax-free status, ordered them from India.
The Armenians thought the French might take a fancy to this colorful, lightweight, and easy to care for cotton cloth, and they were right. It was an instant success among the nobility, and in no time at all, it was the fabric to be seen in at the couture-conscious court of Louis XIV.
King Louis, was quite the stylish king, prancing around his châteaux in layers of ruffles and lace, exposing his silk stockings and red-heeled shoes. He prided himself on being able to spot a fashion trend, and he knew this one was going to be big. He wanted to get in on it and make some money for his country at the same time. So, he directed his Minister of Finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert, who had formed the French East India Company, to start importing these exotic, cotton fabrics which soon adorned every noble in the kingdom.
Meanwhile, back in Marseille, when the Armenians saw how popular their cotton cloth was, they had an idea: In addition to selling the expensive Indian fabric to the rich, they would make their own cheaper version of it for the less rich. The common person could watch their budget and still don brightly-colored textiles and feel like an aristocrat.
The nobles loved their expensive Indian fabrics, and the peasants were just as pleased with their knockoffs. Everyone was happy. That is, everyone except the other textile producers. The linen, wool, and silk industries, that Louis XIV and Colbert had established in France, were feeling the effects of their new cotton competition, and they didn’t like it. They all got together and convinced the King that he had to do something. So, in an effort to save the other manufacturers, King Louis went against his fashion sense and banned the brightly-colored cottons that had become a favorite at his court. In 1686, he made it illegal to produce, trade in, or even to wear those popular prints – both imports and knockoffs.
Seventeen years later, the King loosened the ban slightly when he made an exception for the city Marseille. The fabrics could be produced only in Marseille, and the cloth could only be sold to the colonies and foreign countries. It was still illegal to trade in, or wear, them in the rest of France.
Finally, in 1759, after seventy-three years of banishment, these colourful cottons were allowed back into France. King Louis XV realized that these fabrics were no longer the threat to his country that they had been during his grandfather’s reign.
Now that the cotton fabric trade was once again legal in all of France, manufacturers started popping up all over Provence, and soon, France was again blanketed by the popular prints. New designs were created, and the Indian swirls were eventually replaced by locally-inspired images: cicadas, olives, sunflowers, and lavender in the colors of the Provence landscape.
This once exotic fabric is still popular today and has found new uses. In the Provençal markets you will find a seemingly endless array of tablecloths, kitchen towels, placemats, curtains, etc. Basically, anything made of cloth can be found in these colorful indienne prints which brighten up a home with the spirit of Provence.
Even though this fabric came from far-off India, Provence welcomed it with open arms, adopted it, adapted it, and made it their own.
*You can read more about Provence in my new book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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