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When black became the colour of fashion

Visual images suggest that black became the colour of fashion during the late Renaissance period. While powerful men appeared consistently in fifteenth-century portraits in red crimson silks and scarlet woolens, sixteenth-century Europeans, from Italian courtiers to powerful princes and kings, presented themselves uniformly in sumptuous black garments, composed of deep saturated dark over-gowns and black headwear. The black protocol of the Spanish court during the reign of Charles V (1500-1558) and his son Philip II (1527-1598) was especially influential in Europe, because Spain in this period was the most powerful country in the world. The dramatic shift from colorful garments to black clothing is visible not only in official portraiture, but also in contemporary account books that recorded textile purchases.

Francesco Terzio, Portrait of Charles V at the Age of Fifty Years, 1550. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband

This preference for black in clothing marked a significant chromatic change in European sartorial practice. Although brightly colored clothing in red, green, blue and yellow continued to be worn under black over-gowns and during festivities, carnivals and leisure activities, by the late sixteenth century, black dominated fashion both in portraiture and ceremonial dress all over Europe.

Because of the prestige associated with black, it is usually assumed that black fashion was associated only with powerful princes and high-ranking wealthy European elites. However, documentary sources from Italy demonstrate that that, by the mid-sixteenth century, black was not worn only by rulers, aristocrats and wealthy mercantile classes, but it was by far the most common colour also in the clothing of ordinary artisans and shopkeepers. Post-mortem inventories from Venice, Florence and Siena drawn up between 1550 and 1650, demonstrate that over 40% of all artisans’ clothes that were identified by colour in the inventories were described as black. These included elaborate black woolen over-gowns that were open in the front, called veste and zimarre, worn both by men and women, as well as women’s petticoats, cloaks, small caps and detachable sleeves; and men’s cloaks, cassocks, doublets, hose and felted hats. The majority of black garments were made of wool, including expensive woollens such as say and rash, but many black textile items were also made of silks, including both affordable light and medium-weight silks, such as taffeta, ormesino, tabby and satin, as well as more valuable heavy damasks and grosgrains, and even silk velvets.

Woollen velvet, School of Historical Dress, London. Photo: Refashioning the Renaissance project.

Some of the black garments were made in imitation of their more expensive counter-parts, such as the doublet made of black stamped ‘mocaiardo’, which our Refashioning the Renaissance project is in the process of reconstructing. This upper-garment, made in imitation of doublets of patterned silk velvet, belonged to a Florentine water-seller Francesco Testori who died in 1631. It may have been similar in style to the sleeveless modest black doublet worn by the butcher in Bartolomeo Passerotti image from 1580s.

Bartolomeo Passerotti, Butcher Shop, c. 1580s. Oil on canvas, 112 x 152 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome.

The high popularity of black was connected, in part, to the symbolic properties of the colour: black was the colour of power. But the importance of black was also bound up with the visual and material qualities of black, because good, intense, fast black was one of the most difficult colours to create.

The best-known method to achieve black in the Renaissance period was to dye the fabric first in dark blue with woad, and then to over-dye the blue fabric in a red madder bath. This method, however, was relatively expensive, both because the dyestuffs were costly and because the preparation of the vat from woad or indigo was a laborious process. A cheaper and less labor-intensive method was to dye black using barks and roots or other vegetal dye sources that contained tannins, such as alder bark, walnuts, chestnuts and oak galls. Combined with vitriol or other iron compounds, tannins gave a beautiful, fast black (Video).

Video shows how adding green vitriol (ferrous sulfate; iron (ii) sulfate) into the dye solution turns the dye bath black.

Printed collections of dye recipes, such as that of Gioanventura Rosetti’s Plichto, published in Venice in 1548, offered advice for dyers to overcome the problems and produce better and cheaper blacks. Rossetti’s manual contained altogether 21 recipes for black, including eight recipes for a “very beautiful black”, most based on a combination of iron salts with tannins from oak galls, sumac or alder bark.

Relatively beautiful blacks could also be produced at home. Simple and less-labor intensive methods for achieving black were circulated in cheap printed media. One of the common recipes for home-dyed ‘lustrous’ black was titled ‘women so that when they have spun yarn they know how to dye it in many colours’. This provided a recipe for making black at home by boiling the fabric in a mixture of oak gall, vitriol, and a small amount of gum arabic.

Opera nvova intitolata dificio de ricette, repeated in another cheap printed collection of recipes titled Recettario nuouo nel quale si co[n]tengono molti secreti mirabili (1546).

Such recipes made it easy and cost-effective for men and women to carry out dye processes within the domestic setting, along with other textile-related recipes, such as stain removal. Although black produced in this way was not necessarily durable, the simple and inexpensive procedure produced a beautiful, uniform colour that could be easily brushed up by repeating the procedure.

These varied and cheaper methods to produce black, based on a range of recipes and dye sources, ensured that black as a fashionable colour became socially wide-spread.

Find out more about black fashion, and the material, cultural, and social significance of black in early modern European clothing in my forthcoming article ‘Power, Black Clothing, and the Chromatic Politics of Textiles in Renaissance Europe’, in Burgundian Blacks, edited by Jenny Boulboullé and Sven Dupré.

Further reading:

Chiara Buss, “A Very Fine Black Color”, in Silk, Gold, Crimson: Secrets and Technology at the Visconti and Sforza Courts, ed. Chiara Buss and Annalisa Zanni (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2009)

Elizabeth Currie, Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

John Harvey, Men in Black (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Jo Kirby, Maartin Van Bommel and André Verhecken: Natural Colorants for Dyeing and Lake Pigments: Practical Recipes and their Historical Sources (London: Archetype Books, 2014)

Molà, The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice (Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

John H. Munro, “The Anti-Red Shift – To the Dark Side: Color Changes in Flemish Luxury Woolens, 1300-1550”, in Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (eds.), Medieval Clothing and Textiles, vol. 3 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007), 55-96

Natalia Ortega-Saez, “Black Dyed Wool in North Western Europe, 1680-1850: The Relationship between Historical Recipes and the Current State of Preservation” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Antwerp, 2018)

Michel Pastoreau, Black: The History of a Colour (New Jersey, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2008)

Ulinka Rublak, “Renaissance Dress, Cultures of Making, and the Period Eye,” 6-34;  Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 23, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2016), pp. 6-34

Farewell and warm thank you our research fellow Stefania!

Our project is half way through, and it has come time to say farewell to first of our research fellows, economic historian Dr. Stefania Montemezzo.

During her nearly two-year fellowship in our project, Stefania has been leading our archival work in Italy, identifying, documenting, transcribing and analysing hundreds of historical documents that reveal the kinds of clothing items our artisans and small shopkeepers owned and bought, and how their use was regulated in early modern societies in 1550-1650.  The core of this research, consisting of approximately 30.000 clothing items that were listed in household inventories of ordinary Italians, will eventually be available for public access on our online database.

Alongside her archival work, Stefania has been working in more detail on an account book of a sixteenth-century Italian peddler, a rich document that has allowed her to reconstruct the commercial and social activity of this small-scale operator whomoved around Tuscany selling cheap textile and fashion itemsfor ordinary clientele. Her work on this rare and detailed account will continue. She plans to analyse the document further, in order understand the identity of the buyers, the role of peddlers in the spread of fashion, the influence of the city on the countryside, and the role of geographical networks on the habits of consumption.

Stefania Montemezzo presenting her research in Renaissance Society of America conference in 2019. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

We are very grateful for Stefania for her academic contribution and inspiration. She has given inspiring papers about her research in our academic events in Europe and US, and organized us a fantastic textile study week in Italy, with a one-day’s textile history seminar at the University of Padua where we discussed and debated economic meanings of early modern dress, textiles and fashion.

Dr. Stefania Montemezzo is a talented and rigorous young historian, with extraordinary capacity for team work.  In addition to her academic accomplishments, she has been a key member in team building team and greatly contributed to the good spirits in this project. She is just so much fun!

I am very fortunate to have been able to work with Stefania.

Our entire team wishes you, Stefania, best of luck with your future research. We will miss you dearly!

Our Refashioning team in Florence in May 2018. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

 

Director’s greetings: What have we been up to?

In June 2019, out team gathered in Copenhagen for our second ‘milestone’ meeting, where we reviewed our past results and made both short-term and long-term goals.  This meeting represented a moment of great joy and pride. Our team members have been working extremely hard, and I could all really see how much we have achieved during the past 1,5 years. 

So what have we been up to?

During the first year of our research in 2018, we all focused on identifying and gathering data. This phase is now complete and we have achieved two very important milestones. The first one of these is that the archival research, headed by our research fellow Stefania Montemezzo and produced in collaboration with our PhD student Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen, myself, and our research assistants Mattia Viale and Umberto Signori, is now complete and the data is ready to be uploaded on our brand new database. This database, created in collaboration with Jodie Cox from Wildside, will include clothing and textile items that belonged to ordinary families in the early modern period, and it will be the biggest early modern textile and clothing database created so far. It includes altogether nearly 30.000 items from Italy (Siena, Florence, Venice) and a further several thousand items from Denmark (Helsingør). This data will provide and important basis for our analysis, both in terms of our publications as well as our hands-on experiments, and the database will be eventually available online for anyone to use.

Refashioning the Renaissance database. Image copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

The second important milestone is that our data on printed sources, headed by our postdoc researcher Michele Robinson, is also complete. Michele has been focusing especially on collecting cheap printed recipes that were intended for consumers at the lower end of social scale, and especially those that have to do with the care of textiles and clothing in the domestic context, such as mending, cleaning and dyeing at home. This data provides an important foundation for some of our experiments where we explore and evaluate the meaning of both the recipes and some of the domestic textile practices that might have been available for our artisans and shopkeepers.

Book of Secret in the Welcome Collection. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Dirty Laundry workshop, where we tested recipes from the printed sources Michele Robinson has collected. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

During our second year, in 2019, we have moved on from exclusive focus on data to explore and analyse how various experiments, reconstruction and engagement with materials and textile objects can help us to better understand and access past practices. We have organized workshops on domestic dyeing and tailoring, and we have two further workshops on colour and imitation coming up. We have also been running our citizen science project where we experiment with early modern knitting, and we are growing dye plants in our green house. In addition, we have participated in several courses where we have learned about how historical recipes could be used in textile dyeing; how silk-, linen- and woolen-fibres were prepared in the early modern period; how tailors worked, and how both  precious and more ordinary fabrics and trims were woven in the early modern period.

One of our exciting projects is the reconstruction of an artisan’s doublet, headed by our second postdoc Sophie Pitman and created in collaboration with Jenny Tiramani and the School of Historical Dress. This experimental project allows us to explore all stages of doublet production, such as creating finished fibre from raw material, weaving, dyeing , and making and wearing the garment. We are also working with an animator Maarit Kalmakurki to produce a 3D reconstruction of our doublet. This research will eventually form one of the most important ways for us to analyse how digital and material reconstruction can be used as a method in cultural studies of dress. 

 

Fibre Analysis of the 17th century stockings from Turku Cathedral. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Stain removal test at the Dirty Laundry workshop. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Sophie Pitman reeling silk in Calabria. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Refashioning team learning to spin in Trelleborgen Viking Museum. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

The results of our project will be presented in our final conference and exhibition at Aalto University, Helsinki, on 11-13 September 2020. More information will follow soon, but do not forget to reserve those dates in your calendar!