From Bugs to Tar: Color and Fashion

by Mark MacDonald –


Our world is filled with an abundance of color. From red autumn leafs to clear blue skies, all manner of shades and tones surround us every day. How we react to various colors is something researchers, marketing firms and psychologists alike have been studying for decades. Even more far-reaching is the history of color in fashion; from mollusks to bark and insects, the use of natural dyes dates back thousands of years. Here’s a brief look at the psychology and history of color, as it relates to the world of fashion.

How Colors Make Us Feel

Different colors attract different types of attention

Different colors attract different types of attention

For the most part, Ecological Valence Theory is used to explain color preferences – mainly the idea that a person’s emotional experiences throughout their lives will shape their preference toward one color over another. For example, if someone’s bedroom was painted light blue and they had positive experiences there, that person would have a particular affinity for the specific shade of blue their room had been painted. Of course, if they had negative experiences that implies they would dislike that shade. That being said, certain colors have been shown to produce physiological and psychological responses among most people.

Red. This color is said to attract the most attention and cause a heightened sense of awareness, perhaps due to the fact that our blood is red and therefore we are instinctually drawn to it. Studies have shown that the color red causes the heart to beat faster and can even cause a small release of adrenaline, hence the saying “seeing red.” In the fashion world, the primary red is known as a power color, demanding of attention, and is often associated with romance and passion.

Blue. The most common “favorite color,” blue has been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and has a calming affect on most people. Dark blue is generally associated with authority or royalty; perhaps this is the reason it is used in police and military uniforms across the world.

White. Throughout the world, the color white is most commonly associated with purity or cleanliness. It’s no wonder many doctors and dentists wear white lab coats and the majority of wedding dresses are white.

Black. is a formal color, signifying power and sincerity. Consequently, formal events are often black-tie affairs and the standard tuxedo is black in color.

Many scientists believe these associations and color preferences can be attributed to experiences in nature throughout human history. For example, clear blue skies have always been a welcome sight, especially when human beings were more affected by severe weather, and as a result the color blue is generally favored across cultures. Likewise browns and oranges are often subliminally disliked because of their association with feces or urine. Whichever preferences exist, adding color to cloth for clothing is certainly not a simple process, as evidenced by the myriad of ways our species has attempted to do so.

A Colorful History

People have dyed their clothes for thousands of years

People have dyed their clothes for thousands of years

From Tyrian purple to indigo blue, human beings have been dying their clothes for thousands of years. Until the discovery of the first synthetic dyestuff by William Perkin in 1856, natural dyes such as mollusks, insects, mushrooms and tree bark were used to give textiles color.

In ancient Rome, snail-like creatures called murex were boiled in lead vats for days, giving off a terrible odor but creating a purple color used to dye robes worn by nobility. So highly regarded was the color that, during the late 4th century, the Emperor of Byzantium declared the use of certain shades of purple by anyone but the royal family to be forbidden, under penalty of death.

Insects have also been used to create natural dyes. Crimson is derived from the insect kermes found on oak trees around the Mediterranean, and the cochineal, a scale insect native to South America, was used by the Maya peoples to color textiles red. In fact, the cochineal is the source of the natural dye “carmine,” not to mention red food dyes.

The use of natural dyes declined in the late 19th century with developments in chemistry and its application. In 1856, while searching for a way to synthesize quinine (a remedy for malaria) chemist William Perkin discovered the first synthetic dyestuff, creating a purple dye from a particular mixture of coal tar.

Some companies are returning to using natural dyes

Some companies are returning to using natural dyes

The rapid rise of synthetic dyes created a massive industry that, today, is worth billions. Unfortunately, the chemicals involved in the production of synthetic dyes are often highly toxic and hazardous to factory workers who are exposed to them. The processes involved also cause significant environmental degradation, to water in particular.

Because of these concerns, some manufacturers are returning to the use of natural dyes. Companies like India’s Aura Herbal Wear are leading the way, showing that more traditional, environmentally sound methods can be used at an industrial scale.

Whether its crimson or indigo, Tyrian purple or navy blue, colors have been a part of fashion for thousands of years and will certainly remain so in the future. Whether we will still use snails to dye our shirts is another matter entirely.