A Study in Purple

by post_author

The color purple has a long and illustrious history. From the Bronze Age forwards, it was often a mark of royalty and the most expensive of dyes for fabric. The Roman purpura was a mark of affluence, the Catholic church used purple color to indicate rank for some time, and the remaining piece of Charlemagne’s shroud was also purple. Specifically, Tyrian Purple (from the city-state of Tyre and its fellow Phoenician city-states), which was a dye originating from the shell of the Murex snail, was prized due to its rarity, vibrance, and properties.

Tyrian Purple could range from a maroon-red to a deep indigo that was almost black. This was due to the relative inconsistency and difficulty of the dyeing process. The dye required the crushing of murex snail tissue, salting, cooking, and sun-drying. The difference in concentrations and durations and snails in each batch would create very different colors. However, these colors held great value because they did not require any “fixing” like other dyes of the time. (They did not require other chemicals to be added). Furthermore, the dyes that came from Tyrian purple “aged” with time to become even more vibrant, as opposed to fading. On top of these incredibly useful properties, it was also incredibly rare and unique in color and very difficult to produce, which gave it weight as a luxury item. Thousands of snails were needed to produce even small amounts of dye, and the time and effort it took to successfully create a batch made it prohibitive to mass-produce. The terrible scent of the dye-making process was also famous, to the point that Jewish law even holds a stipulation that any woman who marries a man that becomes a dyemaker after marriage can divorce him for it.

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Close-up of Charlemagne’s Shroud


Purple color also was important since some believe it to be the first modern synthetic dye. A synthetic purple dye was found in the second industrial revolution by a chemist searching for a cure for malaria, and kicked off a revolution in textiles as chemists sought dyes that matched other colors. Today, purple color is still vibrant and important, but the prevalence of synthetic dye has made it lose its deeply held social standing. While its symbolism retains ties to royalty and affluence, it is no longer exclusive to the upper class; you often see clothing for young girls in shades of purple, which would have been unheard of in the heyday of Tyre and its dye industry. In America especially, the color purple had also fallen out of favor due to cultural trends. Eschewing European standards, Americans often preferred colors such as blue, green, or red.

I personally am a fan of purple colored clothing, though not the vibrant type. I enjoy purple-and black plaid as it adds some color to a plain and understated shirt.

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A modern purple shirt (fairly commonplace)


Sources:

http://www.makingthemodernworld.org.uk/stories/the_second_industrial_revolution/05.ST.01/?scene=2&tv=true

The Archaeology of Malta by Claudia Sagona

Cochineal: A Bright Red Animal Dye by LaVerne M. Dutton

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