Humans have been adorning themselves in color since the dawn of time. Ancient cultures across continents were known to dye their skin and fabrics with hues extracted from wood, animals and plants for various reasons—to show cultural affiliation and societal status or for recognition from the spirit world.
Even today, colors are imbued with meaning. Think of all the times you use colors to describe emotions, for example. Why else would we describe someone as “green with envy” or “feeling blue”? This primal impulse has driven us to try and recreate the vivid colors that we see in nature, to varying degrees of success. One of the most interesting color stories, however, is that of the color purple.
Plants and Shells: the beginning of purple as we know it
Tyrian purple, a vivid red-based purple invented by the ancient Romans, was a rare and highly prized color that could only
be produced from the milky mucosal secretions of a few species of sea snails, or whelks, that exist in the Mediterranean Sea. The spiny dye-murex, pictured right, actually gets its name from its use. Each murex could only generate a few drops of the precious dye—and only when the murex were fresh. Because of the incredible scarcity of the dye, purple garments were reserved for the Roman elite (This is why, even today, purple is associated with royalty).
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the murex dye process was lost to history, allowing for an age of grays, browns and blacks. A new dye industry arose in the Middle Ages, but it supplied mostly the Catholic cardinals with deep scarlet vestments saturated with a red dye painstakingly made from the shells of insects, and tapestry weavers with deep dark reds made from dyewood trees native to India and Brazil. The rich purples were at this point the stuff of legend, and dye makers had to content themselves with paler lavenders made from lichen. Textile makers would have to wait hundreds of years until the glory of the Tyrian purple age would be reborn.
Industrial Waste and Malaria: the unlikely catalyst for high fashion
In 1856, an ambitious teenager named William Henry Perkin was working in the East London lab of famed chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Perkin was using his Easter break to catch up on some experiments on coal tar, which by the mid-19th century was the first large-scale industrial waste product. Coal gas and solid coke were the primary fuel sources of the Industrial Age, and in order to create these fuel sources, coal was burned at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, leaving behind masses of thick, odorous brown liquid that was difficult to dispose of. Hofmann had dedicated his professional life to finding a use for the noxious waste, and had tapped his young protégé to assist him with his experiments.
Perkin was by then working on a hunch that Hofmann had. The chemist knew that he could produce amines by breaking down a few components of the coal tar to their nitrogen bases, and that quinine, the cure for malaria, was also an amine. Quinine at that point in time was solely derived from the bark of an exotic tree, and was therefore wildly expensive and difficult to obtain. If Perkin could create a cheap, synthetic version of quinine from coal tar, it could change the world of medicine.
Perkin tried again and again, but each time his experiments produced only red-brown powder, or worse, black sludge that clung to the bottom of his test tube. However, when Perkin went to rinse out the goo, he noticed a bright purple residue that stained the inside of the glass. Intrigued, he wiped the residue with a cotton cloth, and the dye transferred beautifully to the fabric. Perkin may have only had an inkling at the time (no pun intended) but he had just invented the first mass-produced industrial dye. Within six months, he had left his mentor and patented what he initially called Tyrian purple. This name was soon abandoned, however, since the original Tyrian purple was a real animal-based dye and Perkin’s dye was obviously made with industrial chemicals. Therefore, the color was quickly changed to Perkin’s mauve or mauveine.
Fortuitously, in the mid-1800s mauve was all the rage in the salons of Europe: it was the favorite color of both Princess Eugenie of France and her best friend Queen Victoria of England, two young royals who set the trends for all high-class women worth their salt. Perkin’s mauveine was a revelation in both hue and brilliance; even today, an 1850s mauveine gown is dazzling in its vivid, almost neon appearance. See for yourself in the detail photo of a mauveine garment in our collections from around the 1860s. Both it and the synthetically dyed green dress remain bright and bold. By 1858, nearly every fashionable woman had in her possession some article of clothing dyed with Princess Eugenie’s color of choice, and the dye houses of Europe scrambled to recreate what Perkin had stumbled upon.
Purple continues to be a color full of meaning, even in our modern digital age where any color one can dream of can be conjured up on a computer screen in mere seconds. Purple evokes richness, wealth and drama; and the textile world has William Henry Perkin to thank for inadvertently recreating an ancient color that impacted the fashion world and beyond.