The Colour of Clothing in the Early Modern World – Report of Conference Proceedings

February 24, 2021 | Blog
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This blog is based on research made possible by the Initiatives and Conference Fund, financed  by the Economic History Society.

by Ulinka Rublack (University of Cambridge)

18th century French fashion. Available at Wikimedia Commons


This conference traces the history of colour through its interrelation with dress. The period between 1500-1800 marks a time of significant interest in aesthetic experiment, new modes of empirical observation, and an intensification of globally interconnected trade in textiles and dye-stuffs. Fashion was at the forefront of visual styles. Persistent generalizations need to be dismantled. ‘Rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, north and south’, a leading scholar posits for Europe, ‘it was pretty much the same distrust of colour throughout Europe, although more marked north of the Alps’.[1]

Such broad-brush accounts fade in view of our knowledge about the importance of luminosity from the Middle Ages onwards. Colour was increasingly produced to achieve similar effects of brilliance in many of the decorative arts, painting, and in dress during the Renaissance. Dyestuffs included ‘carnation pink’ and fifteenth-century Florentine silk merchants marketed reds named ‘flicker’ or ‘angel wings’, ‘parrot green’, and a ‘festivity’ green — as well as ‘rotten olive’.[2]

The Colour of Clothing in the Early Modern World hence aims to chart the story of colour in the imagination of this period in new ways. There is clear evidence that even dress obtained by middling people could be much more expensive than paintings, but also that coloured clothing and accessories were ubiquitous in the period. New dye tones must have created one of the foremost visual experiences in this period. The spectrum of dyes considerably widened throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, building on Asian and Mediterranean knowledge, new recipe collections, and the greater diversity of available plants through New World trade, whose rinds, roots, berries, leaves or flowers formed the materials of vigorous experiments to create new medicines, pigments and dyes.[3] Apart from the well known stories of indigo and cochineal, other dyestuffs, such as sandalwood or fustic, were imported into Europe during the sixteenth-century. The roots of Indian mulberry, for instance, were widely used on Indonesian islands for batiks alongside the bark of the Morinda tree. These batiks in turn became an important trading item for the Dutch, became a fashion colour in West Africa, and were investigated for the colonial government.[4] Colonial plants were increasingly acclimatised and tested for their properties.[5] Redwoods from Asia and the Americas began to be imported in great quantities and prisoners in the Dutch ‘rasp-houses’ were tasked to rasp them. Brazil as a country was named after its forest of brazilwood, which was already known to Europeans. The Spanish discovered logwood in South America, and soon this heavy heartwood began to be shipped to Europe in large quantities to create cheap black dyes. The use of annatto – a yellow-orange, yet not very lightfast dyestuff – increased with the discovery of the Americas, was prohibited in seventeenth-century France and yet frequently used in Dutch recipes. Safflower was imported first during the eighteenth century, although the colour term existed long before and some recipes referencing the plant circulated during the seventeenth century. The yellowwood quercitron was likewise only introduced in Europe during the eighteenth century to dye a good yellow. Weld was one of the most global dyestuffs to make yellow – it was cultivated in Central Europe and India, and exported to the Americas. Working creatively with organic vegetable, animal and mineral matter to make colours and fasten them on fabrics deeply fascinated contemporaries because it promised to mimetically achieve vibrant natural colours in the world they knew and, decade by decade, knew much more off.

One type of signification given to these endeavours was that they furthered commerce. Another was that they furthered experimental knowledge about nature, while a third signification highlighted purely aesthetic concerns in creating visual interest, and a fourth type emphasized that dyeing allowed humans to participate in an enlivening process of making which replicated God´s own art.[6]

This high evaluation of colour related to deep sensitivities about colour as a marker of prestige and ingenuity, as much as a carrier of emotional qualities, such as protection from ill feeling. This in turn explains the extraordinary effort to create new colours and shades from natural dyes and minerals in the period, documented in recipe books which so far have not been systematically studied.

The project hence aims to re-colour the past to reframe an imperfectly historicized narrative. It links the history of material culture and history of emotions by taking seriously contemporary evidence for the substantive affective transformations associated with colour. We gain, in other words, a completely new sense of attitudes in the period, and globally, for which the relationship with materials and making was central.


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[1] Michael Taussig, What Colour is the Sacred? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 170.

[2] Carole Collier Frick, Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes, and Fine Clothing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2002), 176–177, and fn. 84.

[3] For a technical analysis of dyes see Jo Kirby et als eds., Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments: Practical Recipes and their Historical Sources, London: Archetype 2014.

[4] Judith H. Hofenk de Graaf, The Colourful Past: Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs (Riggisberg: Archetype 2004), 134.

[5] On the long-term development see Agusti Nieto-Galan, ‚Between Craft Routines and Academic rules: Natural Dyestuffs and the „Art“ of Dyeing in the Eighteenth Century’, in Ursula Klein, E.C. Spary eds., Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2010), 321-353, here 345.

[6] The spiritual relevance of pigment use has been one focus of the Cambridge MINARES-research on medieval illuminated manuscripts and work by Spike Bucklow of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, for instance in The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages (London: Marion Boyars 2009).