The colour yellow – 18th century fashion

Gold always feels like such a luxurious colour, so today I thought I would take a quick look at some of the shades of yellow and gold used in Georgian fashion.

Sack dress, 1760 - 1765 (sewing), 1770 - 1775 (altered), 1870 - 1910 (altered) Victoria & Albert Museum
Sack dress, 1760 – 1765 (sewing), 1770 – 1775 (altered), 1870 – 1910 (altered) Victoria & Albert Museum

According to The Art of Dying of 1705, we know how fabric was dyed to create a wide variety of colours and it provides us with instructions  about how to create the colour, gold.

Take your ware after it is dyed yellow, hang fresh water over the fire and for every pound of ware, take one ounce of Fustel wood, commonly called Gelb Swane or yellowing shavings, and a sufficient quantity of coarse pot ashes, boil the dye for half an hour, then work the stuff into it.

Mrs Samuel Powel by Matthew Pratt c1793 PAFA Museum
Mrs Samuel Powel by Matthew Pratt c1793 PAFA Museum

To create a straw colour

Firstly, dye the article yellow, then add half a pint of urine and work it in for as long as deemed necessary. Some recipes recommend stale urine, perhaps that makes it more colourfast?

As there are no further instructions provided, personally, I can’t imagine anything worse than wearing an outfit that’s been dyed that colour using urine and not then washed thoroughly in several boil washes before even contemplating wearing, to say the least, so perhaps it assumes the reader will work out that bit for themselves.

I hasten to add that it doesn’t tell you whether it should be human or animal, so I think it’s probably best to draw a line under that one!

c1760. Metmuseum
c1760. Metmuseum

The finest yellow after being boiled with alum alone, or with alum and dry tartar, are coloured with Spanish broom, which grows in several provinces in France. Turmerick which comes from the Indies produces also a sort of yellow, which is none of the best colours, but serves to tinge yellows and brighten those colours.

Flame colour

For every pound of ware, take two ounces of fustel wood, one ounce of pot ashes, boil them for half an hour, then stir it very well, after which put in your ware, it being first dyed yellow, work it till the colour pleases you, then rinse it out.


The next method doesn’t elaborate as to what shade of yellow/gold it creates, but presumably that’s left for the dyer to decide.

Alum your ware as usual for half an hour. Then for every pound, take half a pound of yellow dye weed, a handful of wood ashes, boil them a quarter of an hour, then throw your rinse ware into the liquor.

Dahl I, Michael; Anne Coventry (1695/1696-1733), Lady Carew; National Trust, Antony

Over time new dying techniques were developed an according to the Ipswich Journal, October 1783,

A Mr Beckman, member of the Royal Society of Gottingen, has lately made a valuable discovery with respect to manufactures. He has found from repeated experiments that the Catharmus, or false flower, otherwise known as the false saffron plant, gives a most beautiful yellow dye to cotton, wool and even linen yarn.

Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

However, some ten years previously, the Kentish Gazette reported that

One of the resolutions come to on Friday in the Committee of Supply was, that a form not exceeding two thousand pounds should be granted to Dr Richard Williams, of St Margaret’s, Westminster, as a reward for inventing a fast green and yellow dye on cotton, yarns and thread and for discovering the secret thereof.

Sadly, it doesn’t elaborate as to what the secret was, so perhaps, it will forever remain a secret.

van der Myn, Herman; Portrait of an Unknown Lady in a Yellow Satin Dress; National Trust, Middlethorpe Hall

This is my last post before the Christmas break, but I will return in January with lots more stories to share, along with some of my lovely guests.  I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all seasonal greetings and thank you so much for all your support during what has been a very tough year for us all.

9 thoughts on “The colour yellow – 18th century fashion

    1. Sarah Murden

      Opulence for the festive season and a cheery sign of Spring too. Thank you so much … you too Basia, and I’ll be back with plenty more articles after the break 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  1. mistyfan

    This reminds me of the yellow ruff that became fashionable in the reign of James I. The creator of the fashion, Anne Turner, used a saffron-based starch to create the colour. Then she was sentenced to death for being complicit in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury and the judge ordered her hanged in the yellow ruff she had made so fashionable. Her executioner wore a yellow ruff too. Needless to say, the yellow ruff became unfashionable after that.


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