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The History Of Purple Clothing - Power, Death & Riches

Season 1 episode 2

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Purple – the colour of the Gods. Worn by Caesar himself. Followed by Arch Bishops, and Japanese Emperors. The colour of royalty and wealth. A colour so precious that if any unworthy were caught wearing it, punishment would ensue, including various forms of death.

Hi friends and welcome to Seams Fabricated, I’m your host Lilli, and today we will be diving into the ocean to uncover it’s secrets and reveal what lengths people will go to for a prestigious garb.

The very first purple dye was supposedly found by the Phoenician God Melquat sometimes known as a version of Hercules. Melquart was walking his dog along the seashore when his dog began to chew on a sea snail. His mouth became filled with a purple ooze. Melquart used this ooze to dye a garment the most beautiful shade of purple and presented it as a gift to Tyros, his lover at the time.

Of course we will never know who actually discovered this gift from the sea or when. I like to think it was probably an everyday fisherman, tired from a long day of hard work, smelling like fish guts, trudging home from his boat when he stepped in something icky. Sources point to a time between 1500BC and 1300BC when the production of this dye began.

It is true that the original purple dye comes from a sea snail, specifically two types of Murex snail, commonly found along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. One species has a more blue tinge while the other more red. The dye comes from a mucus gland near the snails rectum. Essentially, snail butt juice. These glands contained such a small amount of secretion though that it would take twelve thousand snails to make 1.4 grams of dye, enough to dye a handkerchief. Another interesting note is that this dye never faded. Even under the summer sun the colour only became brighter and more pronounced as time went on. Some fragments of ancient purple garments found today still hold their colour. And this is part of what makes this dye so special.

No one in the modern era has been able to successfully replicate the exact process of making the dye. Although a few have made it their life’s work to carry on this ancient art. One man has set up a dye making studio on his property, and he says that his wife almost divorced him over the smell. On recent visits to the Mediterranean, onlookers have seen children playing with the snails on the beach and attempting to dye little pieces of cloth by rubbing the snail over it, and some were successful having vibrant purple streaks as their little artworks.

The ancients would have to harvest thousands of snails from the shallows of the Mediterranean sea. There would have been hills of snails piled up on the shores. And the smell would have been abhorrent. There have been a few written accounts from historians and even the geographer Strabo saying that the smell on the shores was disgusting, and you would need a strong stomach to travel through there. There are several possible methods of how they harvested the mucus. Most likely the snail would have to dry out and the putrid dye would have to boil for days before it was ready to be used.

During archaeological studies of Phoenicia, they have found storage chambers filled with large amounts of shells, the remaining skeletons of our snail friends. The actual name Phoenicia is thought to have meant “the land of purple.” As the land grew to wealth and prosperity, so did it’s trade centre, Tyre which was at its peak during the late iron age, until around 586BC. It’s location on the seashore was perfect for harvesting these snails. The purple dye was the lands best kept secret. No one had been able to replicate it due to it’s difficulty and specific resources. Which meant that it was sold for a lot of money, and only the richest of the rich could afford it. It was worth its weight on gold, some say 5 times it’s weight in gold. Over some years the Greeks and Romans began using the Tyrian purple to dye their ceremonial garbs and cloth their royals. This lead to the Tyrian purple becoming a symbol of power, wealth and godliness, as many elites at the time were worshiped as deities. The horses of the Trojan soldiers even had their tails dipped in the dye.

The Persian King Cyrus adopted a purple tunic as his identifying uniform, as did Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and many other Roman rulers. The Roman emperor Aurelian famously would not allow his wife to buy a purple silk shawl as it ridiculously expensive. A Tyrian purple toga was reserved for the emperor and it became a crime for anyone of a lower class to wear the colour, though it was unlikely anyone else could afford it. For that reason a fake dye began to be distributed made from a common indigo dye. The counterfeit was often easy to spot as it did not hold it’s colour and was not as bright and luxurious as the Tyrian purple. It became illegal to make and sell this counterfeit and was punishable by death. Can you imagine if anyone with a counterfeit bag or shoes was put to death today? I think we’d lose about half the population.

The Romans were definitely not known to be a compassionate bunch, and would sentence those found wearing real or fake purple to death using various methods such as plucking out the eye balls, burying the prisoner alive, impaling or crucifixion. Interestingly soldiers clothed Jesus in a crown of thorns and a purple robe before he was crucified in order to mock him. The Bible also references blue and purple fabrics and threads many times, regarding them as fine materials, and further confirming the status and importance of these colours at the time.

The colour purple and its counterparts, blue and red, has continued to be worn by high priests and bishops, said to represent godliness, often finding its way into religious ceremonies and symbols.

In China and Japan another purple dye was made, however far less amazing than the dye of Phoenicia, as it had a tendency to fade, and was difficult to adhere to the fibres. This dye was made from the purple gromwell plant, which was not easy to grow. China did not care for the colour purple as much as the rest of the world, and neither did Japan until the Nara period. Only high ranking officials and royalty were allowed to wear this sacred colour, and anyone found wearing it without permission, again, resulted in death. When Buddhism became popular in Japan some monks were permitted to wear purple garbs as well, and once again the colour was associated with spirituality.

During the Edo period between 1603 and 1868 plays were a huge hit in Japan and actors were permitted to wear purple when representing a God or royalty. Danjuro Ichikawa, a superstar actor at the time, wore a purple headband in one of his bestselling plays, and the colour became fashionable for citizens to wear.

During the Elizabethan Era, Queen Elizabeth the first created her own sumptuary laws including limiting purple clothing to the Royal family alone. These purple garments were still being dyed by the Tyrian purple although being roughly 3000 years after the first production of it in Phoenicia. This reflected well on the wearer’s wealth and regal status. I found a copy of this decree from the British royal library, and it is really fascinating to see it broken down, even embroidery and velvet, saved for the upper classes, though I found it a little hard to read the old English font and the fact they apparently spelt purple - purpure.

The reasoning for such strict clothing laws was because the Queen believed England relied too heavily on imports (such as the purple silks) and the Queen thought this was a good way to slow that down and boost their own economy. Of course, it was also a way to separate people by class, so you could easily see a peasant versus someone worthy of your time. The Queen was gracious enough to let offenders keep their lives, but they would be slapped with a lofty fine.

In 1856 William Henry Perkin, an 18year old bio chemist was working on a medicine for malaria when he accidently made the first synthetic dye, which by chance happened to be purple! This blew the fashion world wide open as the colour was no longer out of reach for those of other classes. It became reasonably affordable. And Mr Perkin made himself a pretty penny from his discovery. The 1890’s became the “mauve decade.” The new mauve dye didn’t hold the quality as the Tyrian dye as it faded very quickly and turned to a lighter lavender shade. And eventually was replaced by a longer lasting dye. Many other colours soon followed this discovery using the compound aniline, a liquid derived from coal or the indigo plant. I will be deep diving into synthetic dyes in a future episode, it is every bit as interesting as snail mucus and probably just as gory.

Into the 20th century and modern times the colour purple pops up here and there, but thankfully no one is being beheaded for wearing it. It’s crazy to think that less than 200 years ago in many parts of the world it would have been a punishable crime for most of us commoners to clothe ourselves in the highly esteemed purple.

It is also ironic that from such humble, putrid and stinky beginnings this dye was still highly esteemed and worth bloodshed for over 3000 years.

Thanks for tuning in to my second episode of Seams Fabricated. A new episode will be dropping next Thursday so if you made it this far be sure to subscribe, turn on notifications, share this podcast with someone who might enjoy it. Here I will be expanding on more interesting histories of the fashion industry, as well as more current issues such as sustainability and human rights. You can also find me on Instagram @seamsfabricated. I hope you have a lovely day.


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