Those Ubiquitous Provençal Cottons

Vivid medallion prints, soft floral sprigs, assertive paisley borders—they've come to define the Provençal Experience, these brightly patterned fabrics, with their sunny colors, naive prints, and country themes redolent of sunflowers and olive groves. And the southern tourist industry is eager to fulfill that expectation, swagging hotel rooms and restaurant dining rooms with busy Provençal patterns in counterpoint to the cool yellow stucco and burnished terra-cotta tiles. Nowadays, both in Provence and on the coast, it's all about country: back to the land with a vengeance.

These ubiquitous cottons are actually Indian prints (indiennes), first shipped into the ports of Marseille from exotic trade routes in the 16th century. Ancient Chinese wax-dyeing techniques—indigo dyes taking hold where the wax wasn't applied—evolved into wood-block stamps, their surfaces painted with mixed colors, then pressed carefully onto bare cotton. The colors were richer, the patterns more varied than any fabrics then available—and, what's more, they were easily reproduced.

They caught on like a wildfire in a mistral, and soon mills in Provence were creating local versions en masse. Too well, it seems: by the end of the 17th century, the popular cottons were competing with royal textile manufacturers, and in 1686, under Louis XIV, the manufacture and marketing of Provençal cottons was banned.

All the ban did was confine the industry to Provence, where it developed in Marseille (franchised for local production despite the ban) and in Avignon, where papal possessions were above royal law. Their rarity and their prohibition made them all the sexier, and fashionable Parisians—even insiders in the Versailles court—flaunted the coveted contraband. By 1734, Louis XV cracked down on the hypocrisy, and the ban was sustained across France. The people protested: the cottons were affordable, practical, and brought a glimmer of color into the commoners' daily life. The king relented in 1758, and peasants were free to swath their windows, tables, and hips with a limitless variety of color and print.

But because of the 72-year ban and that brief burgeoning of the southern countermarket, the tight-printed style and vivid colors remained allied in the public consciousness with the name "Provence," and the region has embraced them as its own. If once they trimmed the windows of basic stone farmhouses and lined the quilted petticoats of peasants to keep off the chill, now the fabrics drape the beveled-glass French doors of the finest hôtels particuliers and grandest Riviera hotels.

Two franchises dominate the market and maintain high-visibility boutiques in all the best southern towns: Souleiado and Les Olivades. Fierce rivals, each claims exclusive authenticity—regional production, original techniques. Yet every tourist thoroughfare presents a hallucinatory array of goods, sewn into every saleable form from lavender sachets to place mats to swirling skirts and bolero jackets. There are bread bags and bun warmers, undershorts and toilet kits, even olive-sprigged toilet-paper holders. For their fans around the world, these folkloric cotton fabric prints can't be beat.

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