Review – Dressed in Blue: The Impact of Woad on English Clothing, c. 1350-c. 1670

There are some persistent assumptions myths among historical costumers regarding clothing colours.  Fictions such as purple was only worn by Royalty, or pink is not an achievable colour in period continue to be handed down from one costumer to another.

It has recently come to my attention that there are some persistent assumptions myths among historical costumers regarding clothing colours.  Fictions such as purple was only worn by Royalty, or pink is not an achievable colour in period continue to be handed down from one costumer to another.

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Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Artist: Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg) Date: 1519 Medium: Oil on wood Dimensions: 23 5/8 x 19 5/8 in. (60 x 49.8 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 Accession Number: 14.40.633

 

If the goller on the girl in Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Artist: Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg)  from the Met isn’t pink, I’m a monkeys uncle.

Often these tidbits are passed on with little thought to their veracity or how much harm they are doing the costuming community.

One of these “facts” recently came to me from a very reliable source (as in, they’ve written books on the subject matter and are professional historical costumers specializing in 16th century England). This “fact” was that blue was not a common colour in period and that only servants wore blue.  Since no one would want to be confused with a servant, no one wore blue who didn’t have to. Well, I can think of more then a few images of blue gowns in 16th Century German art and I’ve made a few myself.  The article Dressed in Blue: The Impart of Woad on English Clothing, c. 1350-c. 1670 by Maria Hayward addresses these assertions and assumptions using many period sources to support her claims.

Summary and points of interest:

  • In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, blue was so popular that dyers specializing in other colours launched a smear campaign against it.
  • Despite high import value and traffic, only 5% of extant pieces of textile were dyed with woad, indicating that either woad dyed textiles were less popular then trade suggests or it’s hard to detect.
  • The York livery colours were blue and murrey. Ms. Hayward speculates that this may have caused blue to go out of fashion during the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Edward VI. Those monarchs would want to distance the House of Tudor from the House of York.
  • The French love affair with the colour blue remained constant throughout the time covered. The author cites the twelve French Ambassadors attending Henry and Anne Boleyns wedding  having worn an abundance of blue velvet and silk.
  • The decline in blue worn by the nobility can be directly linked to the decline in wool worn by that class of persons. The colour never went totally out of fashion, it transitioned out of everyday ware and into costumes and uniforms using more expensive fabrics such as silks and velvets.
  • Although blue wasn’t worn by the monarchy, other members of the aristocracy are noted for it, especially in their household staff. Often the closest staff of the nobility were minor aristocrats in their own right.
  • By the Seventeenth century, city constables, town watches, and apprentices are all noted for blue apparel and uniforms.
    • Apparently the term “Blue Collar worker” goes back much farther then I originally realized.
  • Blue represented Loyalty in a highly superstitious world.
  • Court entertainment often included the colour blue in it’s costuming. The Blue Knight was a feature in tournaments beginning in the mid 14th century. The concept was so well entrenched that even Henry VIII and his team wore blue uniforms on the tilt yard in 1511, 1516 and 1524.
  • Later Masques became all the rage for court entertainment. Blue was a common colour seen in those costumes. It was said to look good in candlelight and often signified the ideals of Chivalry.
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    Drawing of a Lady Masquer by Inigo Jones c. 1613

    Vestments for the clergy were often blue even at the highest level of noble clergy.

 

 

 

Ms. Hayward addresses the cycle of popularity of the colour blue in the late middle ages and early modern era of England in a straight forward manner.  She neither attempts to convince the reader that blue was or was not fashionable but instead provides documentation of who was wearing it, when and why. This paper provides a very solid basis for further research into the use of the colour Blue and it’s fashionableness across England and beyond.

Aprons – A Historical Overview

Aprons can be seen everywhere, on everyone in the 15 and 16th Centuries.  Worn by both men and women at work and at play, they appear to be a standard attire throughout the early modern era.

Worn by the lowest classes as working garments to offer some protection for their dearly owned clothing underneath, aprons were also worn by the highest classes as a show of status in extravagant embellishment and fine work.  Even women of the gentry would need some protection of their clothing when doing the various household tasks not trusted to the staff.

Clothing cost money.  Lots of money.  The poorer classes would have 2 maybe 3 outfits.  One for church, one for the rest of the time. They ate, drank, worked, and even slept in the same small wardrobe.  In order to maintain the best condition of their clothing, protective layers (both inside and out) were made of cheaper materials. Items such as the hemd (English: smock, Italian: chemise) and the schürze (English: apron) were generally made from linen and served this purpose.  I believe there are some records of wool aprons, but I am lacking a citation at the moment. It would make sense, since wool was nearly as cost effective as linen, although harder to clean.

Aprons in 16th century Germany are standard to a few different styles.  I will explore these designs in detail in future posts.  For now I will refer to them as “Front Aprons”, “Full Aprons” and “Shoulder Suspended”

Aprons
Image 1, Center: Full Apron, Right: Front Apron
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Image 2: Left: Shoulder Suspended Apron

Aprons were often smocked with either basic or elaborate embroidery, displayed cutwork and pulled thread work. The colours ranged from undyed to black, reds, blues, greens and yellows can be found in imagery of the time.  Most often, aprons were white presumably for ease of cleaning and re-bleaching for reuse.

Like head coverings, aprons are something we often neglect in our portrayals of persons in history. In our modern recreations of historical dress, we go for the flashy, big picture. Accessories are the details that blur the lines and make our garb more authentic and feel more real.

Image 1:  Costumes and moral images of the 16th century from Western and Eastern Europe, Orient, the New World and Africa – BSB Cod.icon. 361

Image 2: The Sächsische Stammamuch – Mscr.Dresd.R.3