“Purple isn’t period” A quest

Anyone who like me loves the colour purple and involved in anything like the SCA has probably at one time or another been told, “but purple isn’t period. ” or the old classic, “only royalty were allowed to wear purple.”

Well being the avid purple lover that I am, I decided to look more into these claims, also because I am working on a piece now that is lined in purple and I just know I am going to get the comments.

So what exactly is purple?

when we are kids, we’re taught blue and red make purple. OK but how much blue and how much red, changes in the ratio make different hues, but are all called purple?

So firstly I looked up the definition of purple:

1. any colour having components of both red and blue, such as lavender, especially one
deep in tone.
2.cloth or clothing of this hue, especially as formerly worn distinctively by persons of
imperial, royal, or other high rank.
3. the rank or office of a cardinal.
4. the office of a bishop.
5. imperial, regal, or princely rank or position.
6. deep red; crimson.
7. any of several nymphalid butterflies, as Basilarchia astyanax (red-spotted purple) having blackish wings spotted with red, orBasilarchia arthemis (banded purple or white admiral) having brown wings banded with white.
adjectivepurpler, purplest.
8. of the color purple.
9. imperial, regal, or princely.
10. brilliant or showy.
11.full of exaggerated literary devices and effects; marked by excessively ornate rhetoric:

a purple passage in a novel.
12. profane or shocking, as language.
13. relating to or noting political or ideological diversity:

purple politics; ideologically purple areas of the country.
verb (used with or without object)purpled, purpling.
14. to make or become purple.
15. born in /to the purple, of royal or exalted birth:

Those born to the purple are destined to live in the public eye.
OK so no surprises in that, except I didn’t know there were butterflies called Purple, must look into those later.
It is interesting that the definition even mentions rank in regards to the colour.
This is an Italian dictionary of 1598.
on page 326 the entries are as follows:
pupura the purple colour, a princes or chiefmans colour,or the dignitie of a chief or magistrate. Also a purple fish, which is a shell fish, wherof the purple colour cometh.
purpurato, purpled, apparelled in purple, of, or, belonging to purple or purple colour, also belonging to the place where fishes kill or take the purple fish. Also clothed in garments of purple. Also a nobleman, a peer or the realme.
purpureo, of the colour of purple, like purple, red, bluish, avaid in purple.
purpurillo, red painting wherewith some women do use to paint their faces, a lively ruddie colour called cheeke-varnish. also like purple, or of the colour purple.
purpurino, as purpunio. Also a lively redde colour women use for painting, called cheeke-varnish.
purpurite, a kinde of marble in Egypt, ruddie and full of white spots.
So we now know that the word purple was used pre 1600 but that doesn’t get us any closer to what is period purple?
Off I go to look for an exact definition of what hue is purple.
OH my goodness, what a rabbit hole that turned out to be!
So after trawling through many pages of colour theory, auras (yeah got side tracked there) RGB and pantone colours, I have come to the conclusion that purple is not a particular colour. There are amethyst, eggplant, violet, pansy, lavendar, orchid, and numerous other shades and tones with as many names to match.
So where to now on my journey on the purple road.
I know the term purple was used pre 1600 but perhaps what pigment what it referring to. Well in Florio, it mentions pupurite as a purple marble found in Egypt, I believe we now call this porphry. I was lucky enough to see this beautiful stone in person when I travelled to Italy,. There are many examples of it in the Vatican Museum. It is a very  beautiful red purple colour.
purple sarchophygus
Also Florio talks about the dye made from shellfish.
Tyrian purple, Phoenician purple, Tyrian red, royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye is a reddish purple natural dye made from shellfish.  It is a secretion produced by several species of predatory  rock snails originally known by the name Murex. In ancient times, extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of snails and substantial labour, and as a result, the dye was highly valued.
Below is Byzantine Emperor Justinian I clad in Tyrian purple, 6th-century mosaic at Basilica San Vitals, Ravenna, Italy.
Although this is getting closer this still isn’t substantiating what I call purple, it seems to be a different shade completely.
Before I go on further I guess I should share with you the colour I am chasing after. I have been a lifelong lover of the colour purple but to me this is the colour of an eggplants skin, or a Cadbury chocolate wrapper, The colour worn by Prince on his famous Purple Rain album cover. It’s lush dark deep colour.
After delving into all this research I am leaning towards the idea that the colour that I know and love was actually called something completely different pre 1600.
So maybe I thought I would go on to check out those purple butterflies I found mentioned in the definition of purple.
nope, wrong track entirely.
Sorry but they really do not look purple at all to me
So back to my research.
I decided to look for examples of clothing in purple in the period that I love, 1560 to 1580s Italy, mostly Florence and Venice, but pretty much anywhere on the boot will do.
On my ever growing pinterest boards I have categorised art work into colours. I looked into my purple folder and sadly there are only three in there!
Both these gowns are from The Milanese Tailor’s Handbook, written in the 1570s, and held at the Querini-Stampalia Library in Venice. It was published in A Tailor’s Book, or Il Lidro del Sarto by Alessandra Molfino, a number of years ago but is now a rare book and hard o find copies, however I am one of the lucky ones to one a copy of the book which I tracked down a few years back.
The reddish purple sleeves on plate 92il libro del sarto plate 92
Plate 96, a purple gown over a fascinating black and gold chevrony underdressil libro del sarto plate 96
Also another pair of purple sleeves on plate100
il libro del sarto plate 100
In the book Lorenzo De’ Medici at Home: The Inventory of the Palazzo Medici in 1492, the inventory of the household goods names many purple items.
Closer and definite proof that purple was worn in period by ladies and men. Sadly not my purple
Back to the theories then.
I went looking into pigments and dying. I found this page called Renaissance Colour Palette.
Scrolling down to the purple section it states,

Purple Colours

For purples and similar hues, Florentine, Venetian and Northern Renaissance artists used traditional pigments like Indigo, processed from the Indigofera plant, and Madder – a plant pigment made from Madder plants. The latter colourant had been brought back to Europe by returning Crusaders during the late 12th century.

A quick search for indigo and madder dyes leads me to these pictures

indigo and maddersdyed with indigo and onion skins


And by george I have finally found my purple!

On a side not, check out this purple codex! wow purple dyed parchement, so cool!

Where am I now? Well I have found that my particular purple can be created by products that were used in the reniassance, and that the colour may not have been called purple in period, it was more likely to have been regarded as a violet.


I found reference saying that the Medicis were known to have worn purple, or “pagonazzo” as it was called in her inventories published in Moda a Firenze.


Eleanora di Toledo by Allesandro Allori 1572

Also there are these extant examples of purple/violet fabrics


Zimarra- Interior dress with geometric decoration brown, purple and straw Description: last quarter 16th century; Renaissance (period)  Material: silk Production site: Venice

fabric purple 16th century

purple fabric 16th or 17th century Italy in V&A Museum

Altar Frontal (detail), showing violet velvet with flowers in gold.

Altar front piece showing violet background with gold flowers.  A Treasury of Great Italian Textiles, Antonio Santangelo, Harry N. Abrams Inc, New York.


I have looked at so many purples throughout this journey of discovery, and I think the answer to my question of whether purple is period and if it were only for the upper classes, is yes. Yes there was a colour called purple, is it the same to what we call purple now? Most probably not in the Prince Purple Rain colour scheme, but it does still fall on our modern pallete of purple, possibly called a mulberry or something similiar. Was it believed to be for the upper nobility, in the references I have found yes it was, but that is because the colour was difficult to achieve in the dying process and therefore made fabrics these colours expensive. The modern purple was more than likely available, again quite expensive being that it could only be achieved with imported dye products,  madder and indigo, and was more into the violet range in terminology.

A couple of last portraits to consider, blue or purple? or violet?


Titian’s Portrait of Laura Dianti


Allessandro Allori’s Portrait of a Lady

I think this will continue to be an ongoing quest for me, to gather as many period examples of purple as I can, just for fun you know. 🙂




This entry was posted in general ramblings, purple, Sewing. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Purple isn’t period” A quest

  1. Branwen says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article. Branwen

    Liked by 1 person

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