Research- Sumptuary laws

26 May

Sumptuary statute:
None shall wear in his apparel:

Any silk of the color of purple, cloth of gold tissued, nor fur of sables, but only the King, Queen, King’s mother, children, brethren, and sisters, uncles and aunts; and except dukes, marquises, and earls, who may wear the same in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose; and those of the Garter, purple in mantles only.

The color and materials are the two things that are in question when looking at this Elizabethan law (the first in a long list).

The color purple is not the same modern dye color that can cover everything from plum, to indigo, to magenta.  “Purple” in todays dyes can be anything in the red-blue color spectrum, and is subjective in art, design, dyes, and crayons.

So what was the color “purple” that this law forbade people to wear?  A color modernly called Tyrian Purple which originated in Tyre in Lebanon. The Phoenicians owned the monopoly on this purple dye which was was made by crushing thousands shells of the mollusk, Murex.  This color is actually more red than purple. Tyrian purple “is considered of the best quality when it has exactly the colour of clotted blood, and is of a blackish hue to the sight, but of a shining appearance when held up to the light; hence it is that we find Homer speaking of ‘purple blood’.” 1, 2

Silk was very hard to come by, and only the wealthy could afford it in large enough quantities to create full gowns.

The law:
The law states any silk the color of purple.  It does not make mention of other materials…  One might conclude that the common misconception that “only royalty can wear purple” may be inaccurate, as it generally used as a blanket statement for all colors of purple, all materials, and only applies to King, Queen, Prince/Princesses.  It is clear that ‘dukes, marquises, and earls, those of the Garter’ were persons that could wear silk in purple in various degrees.

How this applies to the gown:
The primary color for the outer sleeves, doublet, and over-skirt is purple, a nice plum/amethyst color.  This color could be achieved via several different dye techniques using lower classed/easier available materials by combining blue and red.

2. History, Shellfish, Royalty, and the Color Purple, Jul 1, 2002 12:00 PM, Dr. Richard M. Podhajny, Ph.D. Contributing Editor

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Posted by on May 26, 2009 in Research


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