Was green fashionable in the 18th century?

As we haven’t written any fashion related posts for a while we thought it might be interesting to look at both clothing and paintings showing the vast array of colours worn in Georgian fashion, but, as our regular readers will be aware we got side-tracked when we realized that there were relatively few outfits and paintings of people wearing the colour green and we wondered why, so began to investigate!

We wondered whether it simply wasn’t a fashionable colour amongst the Georgians, but then, having looked at the way in which the colour is produced we soon realized that one possible explanation could be due to the process and the elements involved, thereby making the cost of it more expensive than to produce other dyes, in turn making it only available to the wealthy. There also appear to have been issues with achieving a bright and even colour. Green also seemed virtually impossible to make colour fast – green skin would not have been a good look, as one of us who shall remain nameless knows all too well, having bought a beautiful long, vibrant green skirt to wear on the beach only to find that for some strange reason it wasn’t colour fast … we’ll  leave that thought to your imagination!

Green dye could be obtained in a variety of ways such as using plants like grass or nettles for a lively green – common broom, heathers or iris for dark greens. Alternately, a product called copperas also known as could be used, Verdigrease (now know as Verdigris) or Alum.

c. 1775, American silk dress. Courtesy of The MetMuseum
c. 1775, American silk dress. Courtesy of The MetMuseum

We came across this book written in 1735 ‘The Gentleman’s Companion, and Tradesman’s Delight. Containing, the mystery of dying in all its branches’ which provides us with some recipes for dying fabric green.

madame_de_pompadour_by_francois_boucher-wiki
Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher

To dye a fair green

Take Bran Water and Alum, a gallon the former to a pound of the latter, and boil them up till the Alum is dissolved; then let your silk or cloth lie therein for about a quarter of an hour, then take more Bran Water and a few handfuls of Woad, and put it therein till it become a dark yellow; then add Verdigrease and Indigo of each half a pound or more or less of the one or the other, as you would have it lighter or darker.

lebrun-pelagie-sapiezyna-green-dress
Pelagie Sapiezyna by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

To colour a light green

Take the herb called Horse Tail, bruise it and add to the juice a small quantity of Verdigrease, Alum and Copperas, and over a gentle fire, make it into a colour, which will prove very pleasant and delightful.

vigee-le-brun-madame-dubarry-1789
Madame Dubarry by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun c1789

The School of Wisdom; or repository of the most valuable curiosities of art & nature of 1788 provides the following recipe for creating a lasting green

Boil three quarters of a pound of alum, half a pound of tartar, into quarts of sharp ley for an hour, and in it soak the thread for three hours, keeping it hot all the while: how to dye it yellow: put into the kettle eight pounds of broom, one pound of corn marigold flowers, half a pound of crab-tree bark, that looks yellow and ripe, and add two quarts of sharp ley: when these have boiled half an hour, then dye the thread in the liquor as deep a yellow as possible: but if you can procure Spanish Yellow, an addition of three quarters of a pound of it will heighten the dye, and render it more lasting, for it is to be remembered, that all yellows that are designed to be dyed green, must be as deep as possibly can be. After this turn it green with blue dye. You may blue the thread with Woad, else with indigo, being first thrown into the alum suds, and afterwards into the yellow, and you will have a lasting green, so that a green dye is to be dyed several ways.

green-for-silks

Grass green

First dye your silk a pretty deep straw colour, rinse it clean and wring it close together with sticks; and then put your silk into the blue dye copper: though you must take care that the strength of the dye be proportioned to the quantity of silk, and that you do not put in too much silk at once.  When it has boiled enough take the kettle off, and let it stand for an hour, after which time you may work it again, and do the same every hour allowing the same interval, but you must be very careful that one handful of silk does not lie longer in than another, and when it is taken out of the copper, let it be very well cooled, rinse and strongly wring with sticks and afterwards dried.

j_s_copley_-_nicolas_boylston
Ward Nicholas Boylston in a brilliant green banyan and a cap, painted by John Singleton Copley, 1767.

To dye a parrot or parroquet green

This being something lighter than the other, must be boiled in weaker suds than the other, and, as soon as it is dyed, must be wrung and dried as the other.

man-in-a-green-coat-gilbert-stuart-1779-85
Man in a Green Coat by Gilbert Stuart 1779-85 Courtesy of The Metmuseum

To dye greenfinch or canary bird green

This must be dyed as the green, only the last suds must be encouraged with a little Provence wood suds, till it is deep enough; then wring it out as above.

ma-29415-web
Coat. France, 1800-1810 Courtesy of LACMA

 

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24 thoughts on “Was green fashionable in the 18th century?

  1. Crikey, life before Dylon! Mind you, I never had much success with that either. What glorious paintings, though. I rather fancy Boylston’s banyan, whatever that was. Dressing gown? Lounging robe? Lovely post, thanks. PS am working on a Tudor-style apple pie, tho’ it’s not quite like any in your recent autumnal post. 🙂

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  2. the usual medieval method for obtaining a rich colourfast green like Lincoln green was to overdye saffron [very expensive] with woad [pretty expensive] or its cousin, indigo [very expensive]. You can get a soft but fairly colourfast green by overdying broom with woad. Now the thing about woad at the time, not having modern oxidising adds to it, was that using it was a long and stinky process – a woad dyer’s hut would smell like tomcats and boiled cabbage and so would the woad dyer. In fact he sweated blue sweat. And the other think putting off amateurs from using woad is that when you lift the cloth out, it ain’t blue. It’s yellow. It only goes blue in the air as it oxidises so judging the depth you wanted was very difficult for someone not having served a long apprenticeship in using woad or indigo. As to nettles, the colour you get depends on the time of year, early in spring you get a light bright green, but by late summer it is nearer olive. Hurrah for aniline dyes. I presume that the colour known as ‘bronze green’ would be obtained from verdigris. I suspect pomona green of being that self same Lincoln green!

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  3. You know that in mediaeval England “to give (a woman) a green gown” was a euphemism for a successful seduction; and to wear a green gown was to proclaim yourself a ‘fallen’ woman? I wonder if the idea lingered on?

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    • also a ‘grass virgin’ because green grass stains on the back of her gown was a sign of not being a virgin at all. Paradoxically, in the low countries, the colour was blue! which was a colour of purity for everyone else. It might well have been a lingering semiotic message … later the colour yellow became associated with miscarriage and said to cause it, because Anne Boleyn wore a yellow dress to gloat at Katharine, and she lost that baby…

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  4. According to Jane Austen, Jane Bennet’s favourite colour was green (she said she had seen a portrait of Mrs Bingley in an exhibition in a white dress with green ornaments).

    Terribly the problem of an effective green dye was solved at the end of the eighteenth century, using preparations containing arsenic. The love of the colour green must have killed thousands.

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    • Once you dip into military uniform the green springs up everywhere, at least 10 British regiments have green facings on their redcoats, different shades with titles like goslin, popinjay, willow, deep, dark & very deep. The Jäger regts from the various German states wore green uniform as did the Russian Lifeguards of Catherine the Great. There’s a portrait of her wearing their uniform.

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      • the colour ‘rifle green’ was a name coined after the inception of the Rifle Brigade in January 1800, as the Prince Consort’s Own, and superseded the previous name, bottle green. [the were not called the Rifle Brigade until 1816 but everyone knows who I mean if I call them that and have a picture of Sean Bean in darkest green as Lt Sharpe in their heads …]
        The darkest green was corbeau, which was almost black. It was popular in the 1790s. Bronze green had a blueish tint, and was certainly in use by the 19th century. Emerald or Scheele’s green [arsenic based] was not in general used in fabric until 1817 but before that was used for wallpaper. Olive was one readily obtainable from vegetable sources. Parrot green was a dark yellowy green in use in the latter half of the 18th century. Pomona green, formerly known as Lincoln green, was THE green of the Regency and the name was coined somewhere between 1811 and 1812. Saxon green involved overdying saxon blue [nowadays called smalt blue and involving dissolving indigo in oil of vitriol] with fustic. Spring Green is a brighter, yellower shade of Pomona/Lincoln Green and the name was coined in 1766. I am assuming it would use a mix of indigo or woad overdyed with saffron as Lincoln Green was made this way [or with weld for a softer version if saffron was unavailable].
        If a link is permitted, this is my research on colours
        http://sarahs-history-place.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/colours-used-in-regency-and-georgian.html

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  5. Oh my gosh! I am what you might consider… a history geek. I mean, when my friend was like “Let’s start a blog on fashion!” I was like, “Um, duh, yeah. Ooh, can we write the history of fashion? Like, all the way from the 1600’s to now! Actually, have you heard of the Vinca, who lived thousands of years ago, and wore mini-skirts and tops? And we can write quotes about fashion by famous designers! Ohh- how about brief histories of famous designers! And what if-“. By now, you get the idea. Anyway, this was so interesting to read, and I never knew any of this stuff. Stop by our blog, leaveyourmark2017.wordpress.com . Your fashion history is like, what I love! It’s one of my passions! I like reading about this stuff! AMAZING ARTICLE!

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