The Joy of Imperial Colours

One of the things I wasn’t expecting to read in my book about the Silk Road is the history of purple. Yes, that’s right, the history of the colour purple. You see, purple dye was very difficult to get hold of, only being found in a particular species of mollusc in the Mediterranean sea, and was so expensive and troublesome to use that only Emperors and senior senators in ancient Rome could wear it. There’s almost an entire chapter on the purple dye industry, which is fascinating, but I wondered initially if it was out of place.

Of course, I missed entirely the point the author was making. Silk was very rarely dyed purple until the Romans got their hands on it; presumably because the dye was unavailable in China or because it simply wasn’t a fashionable colour. But it also reminded me of the Chinese notion of Imperial yellow. Only the Emperor was allowed to wear the colour yellow, and if anyone else was found to be wearing yellow robes they could be put to death. I suspect his seamstresses were given a bit of flexibility if they had to make or repair his robes, as long as they didn’t actually put them on.

Silk, it seems, is very amenable to being dyed, as the Chinese were quick to find out but not so quick to share with anyone else. In its natural state, silk is an off-white, slightly creamy colour but is often dyed after being spun and prior to weaving or being used in embroidery. Chinese silks were famous for their bright colours that neither ran nor faded (although after a few hundred years, I expect they faded a bit) and were very much a luxury item that many wealthy Romans bought for themselves or their wives/mistresses/daughters/anyone else they liked an awful lot.

When I borrowed this book from the library, I was expecting just a basic travelogue from China to Turkey with a few interesting stops in between. What I’m getting is a lot more than that – a history of a textile, of trade routes, of wars in Central Asia and the fashions of ancient Rome. It’s a cracking book, and I can’t wait to see what I’m going to learn next. I suspect it will involve horse breeding, as that’s the next chapter. Oh dear. I don’t like horses.

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