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Time for a long-overdue brand new FRIDAY FASHION FACT!!! Today my goal is to brighten your view of the Victorian Era, literally! We’re talking colors! Thanks to our often Penny Dreadful-esque view of the Victorian Era, or the fact that photos of the time are black and white, we often think of the Victorian world as being quite dark, shrouded by a grey film. In reality, the Victorian World was nearly as technicolor as our world today- neon signs and psychedelic patterns aside, of course. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that the world has always been full of color (thanks, nature!) The vivacity of colors in fashion took a huge step forward in the middle of the 19th Century, though, thanks to the creation of aniline dyes.

What are aniline dyes, you ask? To put it simply, they are artificial dyes. There is plenty of chemistry behind it if you want to get specific, but I’m not even going to attempt to go into that (if you’re interested in the science of it, head on over to Wikipedia or something and knock yourself out.) Before aniline dyes, nearly all dyes were created out of natural materials- mainly plants, but even insects, snails, and other creatures. I say nearly because there is record of chemical dyes being created in the late 18th and early 19th century, but they did not make any notable presence in fashion. Perhaps a surprisingly wide range of colors could be created using natural dyes, but they often had major limitations. Several colors were very expensive, since the materials used to create them were limited. Other colors were not very steadfast, and would bleed, fade, or discolor with time. 

Like many of the world’s greatest inventions, aniline dye was first created by accident. In 1856, chemist William Henry Perkin attempted to create a chemical version of a natural malaria remedy. Instead, he accidentally created a rich purple pigment which he dubbed mauvine. He was only 18 years old at the time. Perkin saw the potential of the vivid shade, and worked to turn it into a viable dye. He figured out an inexpensive way to produce the color, and discovered that using tannin would make the color stay fast. It was the first affordable option that mimicked the rich violets popular among royalty at the time. With the help of some publicity by Perkin himself, by the 1860s, Perkin’s mauvine was the “it” color. 

Yet aniline dyes impacted more than just purple. The formula used for mauvine became the blueprint for other chemical dyes. Electric pink, blue, emerald green, even black dyes were developed. While many of these shades had been available before, the new chemical versions were more affordable and more resilient. Not all aniline dyes where bright or bold colors, though. In fact, it is hard to know how many dyes from the 1860s and later are chemical or natural without testing, since they are often soft, subtle shades. Of course, throughout the years, other forms of chemical dyes were created, yet it was aniline that first broke through and made the full color wheel available to the masses.

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!