Ah, Fashion. If religion is the opium of the masses, then fashion is surely the cocaine of the cool, or at least the crack of the cultured.
Being fashionable means to be a willing participant in an unrelenting race to be perfectly stylish, poised and modern, while all the time the criteria shift and buck underneath you like an angry horse (one which you are trying to ride in terribly impractical and high maintenance clothes) which is constantly trying to throw you off before racing away into the future, leaving you covered in (always-unfashionable) dust and shit.
However, while fashion is fleeting, at least colours are a constant pin in the gown of contemporary loveliness. And what could be more important than choosing the most fashionable colour in the quest to look slightly more interesting that everyone else until they have time to buy the same clothes for much less money?
These days, with the underappreciated magic of modern chemistry giving us not only seven different kinds of sparkle in our hair conditioners and face creams with essence of rejuvenom, but also any colour of any intensity and stability we could possibly wish for, we easily forget that until relatively recently you would be thrilled to find a dye that didn’t smell like piss when it got slightly damp, or slowly poison you by leeching into your skin, or fade within about a day of purchase. And that’s before you even consider whether it makes you look as contemporarily chic as current custom commands.
Throughout history several dyes stand out, either because they were the best source of a particular colour for thousands of years, or because they were (and still are) highly exclusive and expensive, or just because they make you a magus of coolness in omne tempus.
5. Alizarin, red
Red; colour of blood, danger and traffic signs, is considered to be immensely cool.
Alizarin is still used today, and was first used thousands of years ago in its natural form, extracted from the madder root. It was found in Tutankhamen’s burial chamber, and in the ruins of Pompeii, and more recently a whole army took its nickname from it:
The British Army, from 1645 onwards, wore the distinctive alizarin dyed jackets which earned them the name “redcoats,” as well, I’m sure, as the admiration and adoration of opposing, jealous armies in their boring browns and greys.
The word alizarin is derived from the Arabic word for juice (using the usual rule that if something starts with “al” than it’s almost certainly an Arabic word; like algebra, alcohol, and almanac). If you want to try and introduce a cool new bit of slang (slang is the fashion of the mouth), try asking your friends if they want a glass of alizarin instead of juice. If they don’t know what you mean then just laugh at their etymological ineptitude and don’t give them any juice.
Alizarin was the first pigment to be duplicated synthetically in the 19th century, and it’s even used today in biochemical research as a bio assay thing. But only by fashionable researchers.
4. Crocin, yellow
Crocin is the yellow colour in saffron, which is a type of crocus. (Again, the word crocus actually comes from the Arabic word for saffron, and our word for saffron comes from the Arabic word for yellow. We’d all be lot less fabulous if it wasn’t for the Arabs.)
Saffron is a little delicate flower with red stigmas, and you have to collect about a squintillion of them to get a gram of saffron colour, which is why it’s so expensive. They are fussy little things too, and will die just to annoy their cultivators if they water them slightly wrong.
The stigmas of saffron and the crystals of crocin are red, but it turns a vibrant yellow when used as a dye because of chemistry or magic or whatever. A few thousand years ago the ancient world was using saffron as a wonder drug to cure gastrointestinal diseases, and as a food (and bath water, in Cleopatra’s case) colouring, and as a cloth dye in the happening fashion capital of Tyre, in Lebanon (more to come on Tyrian fashion later).
Saffron is surely set become everyone’s favourite supplement as, apparently, crocin has recently been found to be an anticarcinogenic antioxidant with antidepressant and aphrodisiac properties. Astonishing.
3. Dragon’s Blood, red
Red again; danger, blood, the colour of lips, etc, no-one ever gets bored of red.
“Dragon’s blood?” you say, “Back the hell up, you’ve got some ‘splainin to do.”
Indeed. Both the Romans and the ancient Chinese called this dye Dragon’s blood, as it was brought to them by Arab merchants who claimed that that is what it totally was; the blood of dragons. The cleverest Romans and Chinese LOLed at this silly gimmick, but most people saw the sticky, runny red liquid and decided that Dragon’s Blood it most certainly was. This was an early example of a hype campaign, which have plagued fashion ever since.
It’s actually the sap of a family of trees, named Dracaena (after the sap). Romans used it as a gastrointestinal medicine as well as a dye, just like with Saffron. Oh, those gassy Romans.
2. Carmine, red.
Red again; colour of magma, hot iron, and flaming passion, etc, etc.
After the discovery of America, Spanish merchants came back to Europe with this rather good new red dye that didn’t fade like boring old alizarin and was much more vivid. In fact, it became Mexico’s second most valuable export after silver. They didn’t tell anyone what it was though; it was just these little red balls which released dye.
Turns out it was from a bug, cochineal, and after everyone found out they said “Ew!” but kept on using it since it was just so fashionable.
But then the whole carmine industry was nearly ruined after the invention of synthetic alizarin, which was cheaper and didn’t have any bits of wing and chitin in it. Oddly enough though, the British replaced alizarin with carmine as their redcoat dye, and used it until 1914 when they decided that wearing a bright red coat was just asking to be sniped.
Carmine is back these days though, in sweets, as the only “natural” red colour available. This is your fault as a consumer for saying that chemicals are bad. Now instead of lovely pure processed artificial colours we have to eat the secretions of bugs.
You might say; “well, if lots of people think that having chemicals in food is a bad thing then they must be right.” I’d say, “Yeah, well most people think that water isn’t a chemical, so most people’s chemistry intuition isn’t to be relied upon.”
1. Tyrian Purple, purple
Tyrian purple was a very rare, very expensive and very exclusive dye that the Romans prized above all others. It was also known as Imperial Purple. Sounding pretty fashionable already? It was also non-fading and highly luxurious. Imagine that you’ve got your hands on some and you’ve had a sexy toga made with it. I imagine you’d be feeling rather fashionable. Fasten your new toga with your most stylish brooch and glurk! You’d get stabbed for treason. Only the Emperor and his family may wear Imperial Purple. That’s why it’s called Imperial Purple.
Ever heard the phrase "blue blood," meaning aristocratic or royal? Roman historians talked about purple blood, meaning the same thing. (Our modern phrase "blue blood" comes from Spanish skin colouring, by the way; medieval noble light skinned Spanish families would not mix with darker skinned Arabs, and so they said that they were blue bloods because they could see the light blue veins in their pale wrists. Not very friendly of them, particularly after all the Arabs did for colours in fashion).
Tyrian purple is milked from Snails called spiny-dye murex. And, like saffron, each individual gives a microscopic amount of dye, leading to ridiculously high cost and consequent great attraction for the rich and senseless. Talk about Emperor’s new clothes…