I have been duly chastised by the excavators for neglecting an element of Heliopoli that if not included in the city’s description would be like trying to make seawater without salt, or to deny a firmament its shining stars.
There is no proper classification for this thing. It is not just a color or a cloth or a pattern, and its interpretation has changed over time. I am further hampered by not being able to find a photo I have permission to use as an example, and any samples in the city itself have so degraded with time that they are useless, so I have used different, though appropriate, images instead. This thing is locked in its own time anyway — its proper time — so its image is always brighter in memory than anything even a digital photo can reveal.
You might have been introduced to tie-dying in someone’s backyard, with buckets of dye and rubber bands and white T-shirts. The method has to be taught, can’t be learned from a book, like making tallow candles or blowing glass. Tie the rubber bands around the T-shirt, tighten it up, thus and so. There were some who knew how to make certain patterns, methodical, while others just waited to see; but when the rubber bands were taken off the shirt after being dipped in this dye and that, it was always a surprise; you never really knew what you were getting, and that was part of the fun —
a sunburst, always — or a star —
Then in the 1980s we got the manufactured kind, made in a factory, always the same stupid spiral, they all looked the same — which was never the point — and it became a fashion, a self-conscious referent, a wry wink to the past gabbled by New York types through their rectangular, black-framed glasses, snarkily summarizing culture — we are only observers — and stuffing all into a box labeled “Retro.”
That was never the point. And now it can never again be what it once was. We are all too self-conscious for that. It will never again be sunshine backyards amid grass clippings — the smell of cut grass — or “arts ‘n’ crafts” or rainbow colors hanging on a clothesline to dry. It will never again be a surprise sunburst. It will never again be a surprise. It is premade now, hanging in a store.
Wryness is death to surprise. Cynicism destroys optimism.
Snark kills voice.
Did you think we were stupid? Yes, we knew it was about psychedelia and where that came from — you were never taught how to tie-dye from a non-hippie, were you? — but it didn’t matter. We ignored that part. It was just cool. And fun.
For its sunburst and its infinite colors; for its encapsulation of creative and otherwise freedoms; for its obeisance, we see now, to chaos theory’s fractals and never-repeating iterations; for its dark genuflection to drug culture we can ignore; for its bright bursting optimism —
for its representation of an unself-conscious act now turned to stone —
the official something of Heliopoli is —
the tie-dye T-shirt.