Sunday 26 June 2016

Historical Sew Monthly - Monochrome Inspiration

As an ex admin of the Historical Sew Fortnightly/Monthly Facebook group, and still somewhat in the loop as an alumni moderator, I got the opportunity to write this inspirational post. It feels a bit intimidating, as I’ve never tried to cover so much of history before, and some periods are decidedly out of my comfort zone. This will at best be a brief overview, and if I don’t touch on your period, I apologise.

So, monochrome. The white-grey-black scale may seem dull, but historically these shades could send all sorts of messages about the wearer, not to mention set off other colours worn with them. And as cut and detailing of a garment was often quite as important as its colour, many beautiful clothing articles have been made in the monochrome scale.

White has since ancient times been associated with purity, cleanliness and virtue. It was worn by the priestesses of the Roman goddess Vesta, but white was not reserved for religious purposes; there are lots of evidence of white linen being worn by the ancient Egyptians (of course, linen will turn white naturally when in the sun), and the Roman togas were white for several ceremonial and official functions.

During the Middle Ages white continued to be symbolic of purity, chastity and sacrifice. It was worn by priests during mass, by some of the religious orders, and was in some countries the colour of widows. White linen or hemp was used in shirts, shifts and braies, and white was often favoured in the veils and wimples of women. 

"Lancelot and the Seductive Damsel", Lancelot du Lac (BNF Fr. 118, fol. 299v), early 15th century.
 What with the difficulty to keep white linen spotless, it also became a status symbol, and was considered to reflect the moral quality of the wearer, something that would be true in the following centuries as well.

 During the end of the 15th/beginning of the 16th centuries, the wealthy often showed off the elaborately worked cuffs and collars of their fine linen shirts and shifts.

 Later in the 16th century and into the 17th, separate ruffs took over this role.

 During the 17th century crisp white collars, cuffs and caps continued to be status markers, often trimmed with elaborate lace. 

 During the 18th century white silk stockings became all the rage for men and women alike, and clean white frills and lace at neck and cuffs were worn by both sexes. 

 During the 1780s, white chemise dresses became fashionable, after a bit of royal scandal and a little hesitation because of their similarity with shifts - hence the name. 

White cotton dresses continued to be popular in the early 19th century, in an effort to look like the marble statues of ancient Greek and Roman times.

White cotton dresses were still worn by infants for the rest of the century, even when coloured dresses had long been the more common choice for older children and women. Adorable, radiating innocence, and easier to bleach in the wash.

 Clean, tidy white continued to be important in underwear, shirts, cuffs, collars and caps, their state of cleanliness still regarded as a reflection of the morality of the wearer – though in reality perhaps more often being a reflection of the wealth of the wearer, or, in ordinary families, the hard work of the wife and mother. 

Though white wedding dresses had made appearances among the wealthy through the centuries, they weren't common until the 19th century, first as a natural thing as white was the most modern colour anyway, and then became a special and much desired thing, when Queen Victoria married in white and looked so deliciously romantic - what girl who could afford it didn't want that for her wedding day?
"The Bride Adorned by Her Friend" by Henrik Olrik, Dansih, 1850.

In the Edwardian era white was very popular in ladies waists and summer dresses. For some sporting activities, like tennis, it was also favoured. 

Heavily starched shirt collars and false shirt fronts of gleaming white marked the gentleman. White or off white light suits were worn for less formal day wear in summer.

Grey was, because it’s a common colour of undyed sheep’s wool, for a long time the colour of ordinary people (or at last their everyday clothes), and certain religious orders that had humbleness and poverty among their vows. The 14th and 15th century garments from Herjolfsnes were made from undyed wool, in different shades of white, grey, brown and natural black.  

During the 17th century, when black was popular among the wealthy because of its soberness and association with humility, greys and browns were adopted by many people of Puritan leanings but lesser means, or by the well off for variety.

Well into the 18th century Swedish (possibly more generally Scandinavian) farmers were described as often wearing heavily fulled, home woven grey coats. But grey was not only used by the ordinary people, fine suits and dresses of grey silk were worn by wealthy people. And of course, the powdered wigs so typical of the time often looked grey.

In 1794 the Swedish king Gustav IV Adolf made a new, extensive sumptuary law, after his father, wanting more elegance around him, had made the previous sumptuary laws void. Amongst other things (like banning coffee) women were forbidden to wear dresses from silk or silk blends in any other colour than white, grey and black, and tailors were forbidden to make them up. Dresses never worn out of doors were exempt from this new law, that, as far as dress colours were concerned, actually seem to have been followed pretty well. The coffee ban seem to have caused more rebellious behaviour.

During the 19th century grey was used by women for half mourning, or just because it’s a nice colour and matches well with just about anything. In short, it’s a practical colour. 

 It’s also seen rather frequently in extant Quaker clothing.

For men grey was beginning to be more common in military uniforms, as they provided better camouflage than the colourful uniforms of previous eras. Grey was also rather popular in gentlemen’s leisure suits. 

 In the beginning of the 20th century, grey continued to be a sensible colour for ladies dresses and ensembles. 

Black was for a long time not what we’d consider true black. It was tricky and expensive to dye, and faded quickly to greys, greens and browns. In Medieval Europe bright colours were much favoured by everyone who could afford them, including the royalty and nobility, while black was mostly used by the Benedictine order. This did not go without censure: in the first half of the 12th century the Benedictine abbot Pierre the Venerable accused the Cistercians of pride for wearing gleaming, difficult to keep clean, white. The Cistercian founder, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, responded that black was the colour of the devil, hell, "of death and sin," while white represented "purity, innocence and all the virtues". Dear, dear.

By the end of the 14th century a change began in regards to the colour black. New, better dyes made for better quality black, and sombre black robes began to be worn by magistrate and government officials, as a sign of their dignity. When Italian sumptuary laws restricted what colours could be worn by those not of the nobility, the wealthy bourgeois began wearing clothes from very fine, black fabrics instead. The fashion soon spread to the local nobility and royalty, and then from court to court in Europe. 

In the 15th century black was no longer an unusual colour among the wealthy and noble, though colours were still common.

During the 16th century elegant, solemn black increased in popularity and had by the end of the century become the go-to colour of nearly every court in Europe.

During the 17th century black continued to be popular, particularly among the wealthy middle classes, worn as a reflection of one’s piety and humility – the 17th century was full of unrest, religious contention and war, and declaring what side you were on could be made through dress and, in some cases, even hairstyle. The Puritans for example, though by no means restricted to black, often did favour it if they could afford it, or kept to other sober colours for these reasons, but they were far from the only ones. Combined with the white collars and cuffs that were in fashion, they made very striking outfits. 

In the 18th century black went largely out of fashion, except for mourning. Light pastels and bright colours were favoured during most of the century, but the occasional black outfit was seen, and black could be used for accessories like hats, the neck stocks of British officers, and shoes. Black was also a common colour for clergymen and doctors, as a remnant of the piety, solemnity and respectability they represented in the previous century.

Black came back with vengeance in the 19th century as the ever more important must have colour of any woman’s mourning clothes. Fashionable mourning was so popular that many upper and middle class ladies in Stockholm wore it even for deaths that didn’t concern them personally, and wasn’t even subject to official national mourning, like when Crown Princess Josefina’s father, the Duke of Leuchtenberg (adopted stepson of Napoleon I), died in 1824. 

Evening wear for mourning, 1824.

 Proper and fashionable mourning was so important that it wasn’t uncommon for wealthy families to actually go into debt to keep up when many deaths happened in rapid succession. People of more limited means but more sense used the same ones for a long time, changed, up-cycled and added to them when needed. There are also examples of more local customs for mourning attire, as worn by the farming community.

Mourning in Torna härad, Skåne (Scania), south of Sweden. 
The skirt pulled over the head brings echoes of 17th century fashionable mourning wear.
Black dresses were by no means reserved for mourning, however – it was also fashionable, and proper for many occasions. 

For that reason many brides in smaller circumstances from the middle of the 19th century up until the 1920s often had black (or other colour) wedding dresses made, as they could easily be used for best dresses after the wedding. 

The gentleman or businessman in the black suit, so familiar to many of us today, was a product of the 19th century. As the century progressed the coats in green, brown and blue gave way to black, and at the middle of the century the waistcoat offered the main splash of colour to a gentleman. At the end of the century even that had largely become monochrome as well. 
The Gentleman's Magazine of Fashion, 1870.

As the 20th century rolled in black continued to be worn for mourning, and by working women for practical reasons. And of course, the little black dress was made a thing by Coco Chanel in the 1920s. Black was now for everyone, and no longer reserved for the elite.

 And there you have it! Hopefully you got some good ideas of what to make, if you didn't have one already. If not, one could always use more body linens. Now, go and sew, crochet, knit, weave and embroider all the monochrome things!


  1. Excellent post!

    Do you have a reference for the concept that Italian sumptuary laws drove the fashion for black in the late 14th / 15th Centuries? Because that bit was fascinating!

  2. Thanks :) Not a very good one - I'm embarrassed to say I got that off of Wikipedia. They had used this reference (Michel Pastoureau, Noir- Histoire d'une couleur, p. 93–130.) for that piece of information though, but as I don't have it, I can't really say how reliable a source it is... And I'm terrible with Italian Medieval fashion anyway. If the information is wrong, I'm happy to be corrected.

  3. Personal editorialization: It's rare that a sumptuary law is passed that causes a fashion. Usually sumptuary laws are in response to a fashion that already exists, where lower classes are starting to adapt it and the rich want to protect it from them.

    Black by Michel Pastoureau is the reference in english. In the chapter referenced, on page 96, he supports my editorialization by saying that the fashion was supported and aided by the sumptuary laws, not caused by them, and they seem to be reactionary. He also says it's not likely the plague is the cause because the fashion predates the Black Death. His suspicion is that the popularization of fur, and the most expensive fur is black sable, undid the prejudices against black as an evil color and led to a fashion to wear black in not only fur but cloth as well.

    For more info, I recommend the book. Color fashion histories are fascinating.

  4. Thanks, Sarah and Aurora. That's very useful and interesting. :)

  5. Here's something white - my wedding dress:

  6. I finished this challenge SUPER late... I started on time but then there were hand-done eyelets... soooo.. The post is here:


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