Toile was popularized in 18th century France and remains fashionable to this day. Let’s take a closer look at this romantic, whimsical pattern.
Translated from French, the word “toile” simply means “cloth.” But, in the world of prints, it conjures something specific—an intricate pastoral scene, often rendered in shades of blue or red, against a white or cream linen or cotton.
That’s the kind of toile that’s short for toile de Jouy, named for the French town where the pattern rose to popularity in the 18th century. More than 300 years later, toile fabrics still pop up everywhere. You’ll find it on the runway, in wallpaper, even on sneakers and children’s toys.
The Origins of Toile
Though toile was available in Ireland and England in the early 1700s, it didn’t take off until 1760, when the French-German industrialist Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf set up shop in the town of Jouy-en-Josas.
But first, some context: After France started importing cotton in the 1500s, the fabric became so popular that it started threatening the country’s own textile production of silk and wool, which were harder to care for and more expensive. In 1686, the country enacted a ban on the import of cotton. But, when it was overturned in 1759, Oberkampf made his move.
He chose Jouy-en-Josas for two reasons: 1) it was close to Paris, home to the nation’s most fashionable individuals. And, 2) it was near the Bièvre River, where factory workers could wash the fabrics. The town also happened to be located on the route from Paris to Versailles, meaning that wealthy travelers could see Oberkampf’s fabrics laying out on the grass to dry while they were going to and from the palace.
It was a savvy method of free advertising that quickly paid off because, eventually, the designs made their way to the queen herself.
Marie Antoinette: Trendsetter
As with flower crowns and giant hairpieces, Marie Antoinette was hugely influential in making toile de Jouy the print of the late 18th century, whether it was on a dress, wallpaper, or seat cushion.
She was so enthralled by Oberkampf’s work that she actually visited the factory in 1781, and even brought along her children, who had so much fun that they returned to Versailles with their hands covered in dye.
Though the platonic ideal of toile usually involves a pastoral scene, truly anything went. And, Oberkampf was instrumental in pushing the boundaries of what could end up immortalized on cotton.
He employed some of the best artists of his time to design illustrations for his fabrics, including painter Jean-Baptiste Huet, who created some of the factory’s most iconic prints.
Huet created landscape scenes featuring buxom shepherdesses, of course, but he also created a print to commemorate the first hot-air balloon flight and another one to honor Bastille Day. One of his more meta designs even depicted the different stages of manufacturing textiles.
Colonial American Toile
While toile de Jouy was exploding in popularity in France, a similar craze was happening across the Atlantic in the English colonies. Like France, England had a problem with cotton imports dragging down their silk and wool industries. So, the country enacted a series of bans and tariffs called the Calico Acts that lasted until 1774. All that cotton had to go somewhere, though, so the English sent it to America.
Country scenes and floral patterns were popular there, too, but after the Declaration of Independence, patriotic designs became the new trend. Colonial Americans could find toiles depicting the American Revolution, Betsy Ross sewing the American flag, and William Penn signing a treaty with the Lenni Lenape tribe. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, also incorporated toile into the décor at Monticello.
The fabric became so associated with America that it experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s, when much of the country was gripped with bicentennial fever. Contemporary designers created old-fashioned patterns made to look as though they came from the 1700s, like one that showed various Philadelphia landmarks, including Independence Hall.
Older millennials may also recall that Felicity, the American Girl doll who lived in colonial Williamsburg, had her own toile bedspread, decorated with a red floral print.
Though toile cycles in and out of fashion like any other print, its popularity—especially for home décor—means that it’s never really gone out of style.
In the past twenty years, there’s been an explosion of modern, sometimes cheeky, toiles that have made their way to tote bags, Converse sneakers, and swim trunks.
Interior designer Sheila Bridges is behind one of the most iconic new toiles—Harlem toile. She created the fabric after never finding a toile that spoke to her experience as an African American woman. She describes her Harlem toile, which is now in the Smithsonian Design Museum’s permanent collection, as an attempt to lampoon “some of the stereotypes deeply woven into the African American experience.”
At this point, you can find toile de Jouy in basically any design you can imagine. There’s a Women of Science and Learning toile, featuring portraits of groundbreakers like Jane Goodall and Marie Curie. A Brooklyn toile, decorated with landmarks from New York’s most populous borough. And a Doctor Who toile, covered in tiny pictures of the Tardis. The possibilities are truly endless.
Outside of the ’70s bicentennial surge, there have also been several toile moments in the history of high fashion. For her resort 2020 show, Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri incorporated updated takes on toile de Jouy, manufactured by Cote D’Ivoire company Uniwax and featuring lions, tarot cards, and winged mythological creatures.
2013 saw another explosion of toile on the runway, with Oscar de la Renta showing toiles in vivid shades of scarlet and lime green for his fall collection. Carven’s spring 2013 show, meanwhile, featured several looks made of a toile print covered in animals you’d see on safari—and the gawking tourists clutching their binoculars.
The New York–based designers at Ruffian were on the same wavelength that season, sending out models dressed in a Brooklyn-inspired toile print made in collaboration with the artist John Gordon Gauld.
The next toile de Jouy renaissance could be just around the corner—until then, there’s toile covered in dinosaurs.
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Cover image via Shutterstock’s The History of Cotton Toile Collection.