Friday, June 12, 2009

Renaissance Clothing Colors Part 1

Color played an important role in renaissance clothing. Social hierarchy, culture, and economic activity all played a role in the color of clothing. For the status conscientious nobles, merchants, and peasants of the renaissance period, clothing colour was particularly important. It is fascinating to note that the importance placed on color continued beyond the renaissance period and resulted in significant changes in chemistry during the mid-1800s; changes that continue to impact nearly all aspects of modern-day life. The importance of color during the renaissance should not be underestimated; neither for the role it played during that period nor for its continuing impact today.

Sometimes there is a perception that the color of clothing during early periods of history, like the Renaissance period, was not very good; that the colors were not bright, were not of very many hues, were mostly greens and browns, and that they faded quickly. In fact, this is not universally true. Give the ancients some credit here! Look around outside – all of the colors seen in nature are the colors which were produced from natural dyes in the past. Dyeing was well developed by 2000 B.C. [1] By the time the Renaissance rolled around, dyeing had been going on for at least 3000 years, and probably longer. That is 3,000 years of experiments and improvements and fine-tuning to the art and craft of dyeing.

Also, consider how long people have been making cloth. In his book, Indigo Textiles: Technique and History, Gösta Sandberg talks about linen “woven with over 330 weft threads per inch (130 per centimeter) as was being done in Egypt thousands of years before our era began” and cotton cloth “woven so thin as that of the bare-footed weavers of Madapalam and Calcutta, who made it all by hand in what we now call undeveloped India” and thread “spun so fine that one kilometer of it weighs scarcely more than a gramme, as they once did with little distaffs.” He continues, “We say that machines and mechanisation give people more time. Yet never again will anyone have the time, and be able to afford to devote two years to weaving, say, a double ikat in Gujarat or a batik for a bridal cloak in Java.” (pg 9) Some cloth and clothing during the Renaissance, like that of peasants, was undoubtedly primitive and made with poorly dyed colors. (I could say the same of some of the clothing in my closet today). However, dispel the idea that all cloth and all colors of clothing during the Renaissance era were roughly made and poorly dyed.

Many resources and books describe natural and ancient dyes and the colors that are achievable with these dyes. Here are some of the clothing colors available with natural dyes:

Reds light to dark red, bright red, crimson, rose, pink, reddish-orange, reddish-brown, reddish-purple, red-gray
Oranges light to dark orange, orange-brown, rust, reddish-orange, yellow-orange, gold-orange
Yellows light to dark yellow, bright yellow, gold, yellow-gold, gold-orange, yellow-green, yellow-orange, golden-tan
Greens light to dark green, bright green, yellow-green, sea green, olive-green, gray-green

Blues light to very dark blues, teal, blue-gray, blue-black
Purples light to dark purples; reddish-purple, purple-gray, lilac, violet

Browns light to dark brown, reddish-brown, light tan (honey), tan, golden-tan, fawn, rust, orange-brown
Grays light to dark gray, blue-gray, red-gray, gray-green, purple-gray
Blacks black, near-black, blue-black

* Note that the words used to describe the colors listed above are generally modern descriptions of natural colors. For example, the words ‘olive green,’ when used today, describe a green-yellow hue of medium lightness. [2] During the Renaissance, the same words, if they were used, may have described a different color. However, the modern descriptions used above, even if they are not the words that might have been used during the Renaissance, describe the colors achievable using natural dyes available during the Renaissance.

Books with color pictures of materials dyed with natural and ancient dyes:

Bolton, Eileen M. Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing (Newton Centre 59, Mass.: Charles T. Branford Company, 1960).

Kramer, Jack Natural Dyes Plants & Processes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

Liles, J.N. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990).

Van Stralen, Trudy Indigo, Madder & Marigold: A Portfolio of Colors from Natural Dyes (Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1993).

Weigle, Palmy Ancient Dyes for Modern Weavers (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974).


[1] Sandberg, Gösta Indigo Textiles: Technique and History (London: A & C Black, 1989), 10.

[2] The Free Online Dictionary. "Olive green." Farlex, Inc. (Accessed 12 June 2009).

Thank you for reading my blog about Renaissance clothing!