Great Britain or France
Silk and ruching
Given by the Marchioness of Bristol, Ickworth, Bury St Edmunds
Museum no. T.51&A-1922
The ruched skirt and draperies on this dress reverberate with intense colour, revealing the fashion for bright new synthetic dyes. Their inception owes much to the work of Sir William Henry Perkin (1838-1907), who discovered the first famous artificial colour by accident in 1856 when he was a student at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. While experimenting with a synthetic formula to replace the natural anti-malarial drug quinine, he produced a reddish powder instead of the colourless quinine. To better understand the reaction he tested the procedure using aniline and created a crude black product that ‘when purified, dried and digested with spirits of wine gave a mauve dye’. This dye created a beautiful lustrous colour that Perkin patented and which became known as ‘aniline violet’ or ‘mauveine’.
Perkin’s discovery led to a revolution in synthetic colour from the late 1850s onwards. Textile manufacturers soon turned to his aniline process and the resulting fabrics were characterised by an unprecedented brilliance and intensity that delighted the consumer. Women’s dresses acted as a perfect advertisement for these rich hues, especially as trimmings usually matched the colour of the gown. In August 1859 the satirical journal ‘Punch’ described the craze for purple as ‘Mauve Measles’, a disease which erupted in a ‘measly rash of ribbons’ and ended with the entire body covered in mauve. Soon other synthetic dyes were being produced with evocative names such as ‘acid magenta’, ‘aldehyde green’, ‘Verguin’s fuchine’, ‘Martius yellow’ and Magdela red’ to match their gaudy appearance. This dress is coloured with a chemical dye which closely resembles the aniline violet and purple fabric samples dyed with Perkin and Sons Colors shown in the ‘Practical Mechanics Journal: Record of the Great Exhibition’, 1862.