Installation view of To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (all images courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

WASHINGTON, DC — In 1997, Oscar de la Renta designed a spring/summer haute couture collection for Pierre Balmain’s fashion house that included flowing robes with bold, colorful geometric patterns. They were inspired by the traditional silk ikats of what is now Uzbekistan, which had their heyday in the 19th century but only became widely known to Western collectors after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Dominican-born designer was so taken with the textiles that he visited Uzbekistan and commissioned local weavers to produce fabrics for the French label.

De la Renta went on to incorporate or reference ikats in at least several other collections for both Balmain and his eponymous fashion label, up until de la Renta’s death in 2014. In doing so, he is credited with launching a trend: Ikat patterns have become enormously popular in both fashion and interior design, with brands ranging from Anthropologie to Target featuring them on everything from women’s clothing to armchairs. But most consumers seem to be ignorant of the textile’s cultural origins.

Installation view of To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia

To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia, currently on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, juxtaposes a half-dozen of de la Renta’s original ikat-inspired pieces spanning from 1997 to 2013 (on loan from his estate) with about 30 historical Central Asian ikats, examining how these textiles in a sense crossed over.

The term ikat, which comes from a Malay-Indonesian word meaning “to tie,” refers to both the technique and the fabrics and patterns it produces. Ikats are made through a labor-intensive series of steps that involves resist-dyeing (a process that controls the spread of the dye) bundles of vertical, or warp, threads, thus creating the design through the dyeing process rather than in the weaving, unlike most other fabrics.

In 19th-century Central Asia, ikat production involved a complex network of artisans who worked mainly along ethnic lines: Tajiks did the yellow and red dyeing, Jews handled the indigo dyeing, and Uzbeks conceived the patterns and did the weaving. Although the method was developed in several parts of the world, Uzbekistan’s stunning silk ikats have become the best known.

“Nobody really knows why [ikat] suddenly appeared in Central Asia and Bukhara and Samarkand in the early 19th century,” Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler’s chief curator, told Hyperallergic. “And when it appeared, it was so sophisticated that you’d think there must have been precedents, but we just don’t know.”

Installation view of To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia

The historical ikats in To Dye For were all donated to the Sackler by Guido Goldman — a Swiss-born academic who founded the Center for European Studies at Harvard University — who began acquiring them in the 1970s, eventually amassing one of the world’s most significant collections. The works on display include a couple dozen flat tapestries, as well as coats and robes that would have once been worn by both men and women as symbols of wealth and status in the oasis cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.

The exhibit doesn’t take a critical stance on de la Renta’s incorporation of ikat in his designs, or address questions about the Western fashion world’s appropriation of other cultures. Its aim is more straightforward: to inform visitors about the textile’s origins in Central Asia and to illuminate that cultural and historical context.

Woman’s robe Central Asia (late 19th century), silk, cotton, and wool (gift of Guido Goldman)

The impressive third room displays six de la Renta pieces interspersed with a roughly equal number of 19th-century ikat coats, all placed on mannequins. The effect of displaying them side by side is to make the Central Asian pieces more accessible and less foreign, and to underline the parallels between the two groups — all were considered luxurious and valuable in their time and place.

Cut in wide, loose styles resembling those of Ottoman kaftans, the vintage Uzbek coats are striking, with their elaborate patterns and extremely bright colors. They were often lined with similarly vibrant Russian cotton or Indian chintz fabrics, according to Farhad. A silk, cotton, and wool woman’s robe dating to the late 19th century, for example, is a perfect example of just how over-the-top these garments often were: The robe features bold red, yellow, and white diamond-shaped medallions, stylized flowers, and zigzags on a black background, and is partially open to reveal a black lining with red and white flower buds, green leaves, and orange ornamentation — accented with a wide trim of purple and green stripes.

Of the de la Renta pieces, a robe from the designer’s fall/winter 2000 collection for Balmain — featuring large pomegranate shapes in deep magenta and black against a white background — is particularly eye-catching. It references the stylized motifs, including pomegranates and other fruits, flowers, jewelry, and abstract geometric shapes, that were often used in traditional Uzbek ikats. In some pieces, de la Renta used actual ikat fabric, while in others, he employed non-ikat techniques — such as embroidery — to imitate the slightly blurry look of ikat.

Wall hanging Uzbekistan, Samarqand (mid-19th century), silk and cotton (gift of Guido Goldman)

Although the clothing pieces are among the highlights, the wall hangings are also noteworthy. Flat Uzbek ikats served roles both decorative and functional (for example, adding insulation to the interior walls of a house, or as coverings for bedding). They were generally made of several narrow, loom-width lengths of material sewn together, creating another element in the design. An ikat from mid-19th-century Samarkand, featuring large, bulbous blossoms accented by blue and purple leaves on a yellow color field, is a good example. The four swaths of fabric were sewn together in a staggered fashion to create a cascading effect of the floral forms.

It’s no wonder these gorgeous textiles inspired Oscar de la Renta, and that his designs quickly popularized the look. Yet while the rest of the world is richer for having embraced this now ubiquitous style, it’s unfortunate that most people are unaware of the culture and history behind it. To Dye For reminds us that so much of what now feels familiar once came from somewhere else.

To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia continues at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. NW, Washington, DC) through July 29.

Vanessa H. Larson is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., who was previously based in Istanbul. She covers visual arts, culture and film, particularly of the Middle East and Islamic world, and has...