It’s safe to say that you can expect to pay the same price for the same fabric, regardless of the colour. But only a few generations ago, the cost depended on the colour of the cloth because some dyes were so expensive to obtain.


Blomma collection in Heather by Charles Parsons Interiors
Pictured above: The Blomma collection in colour Heather

Royal Purple

Purple was so expensive that only royalty could afford it!

Tyrian Purple, otherwise known Royal Purple or Imperial Purple, dyes fabric a beautiful deep purple shade. In ancient times, the dyestuffs were obtained from the Mediterranean sea snail.  The purple is used by the snail as part of predatory and defensive behaviour – the secretion can be extracting by poking and antagonizing the snail, and the resulting goo would gradually become purple on exposure to sunlight.  ‘Milking the snail’ was a renewable resource, but so labour-intensive that usually the snails were crushed completely to extract the colour.  Mountains of snail shells have been found at the ancient sites of Sidon and Tyre – they were harvested to such extremes that for a long time, the Murex snail was considered extinct.


Murex mollusc and its Tyrian Purple excretion
Pictured above: The Murex mollusk outside of its shell, and its Tyrian Purple excretion

The origins of purple dyes stretch back to 1900 B.C. in Crete.  In Greek mythology, Heracles, son of Zeus, discovered the dye when his pet dog’s mouth was stained purple after chewing on snails along the coast of the Levant.


La Decouverte de la Pourpre by Peter Paul Ruben 1636
Pictured above: La Decouverte de la Pourpre by Peter Paul Ruben 1636 – an oil representation of Heracles’ discovery.

To harvest the dye, snails were plucked from the sea and the dye-bearing vein was extracted and processed.  Tyrian Purple was a luxury status symbol among the wealthy – third-century emperor Aurelian famously wouldn’t allow his wife to buy a Tyrian purple shawl, as it literally cost its weight in gold!  It was highly prized for its colourfastness – unlike other dyes that faded in the sunlight, Tyrian Purple would become darker.

Even in modern times, Tyrian Purple is expensive to extract.  When the German chemist Paul Friedander recreated the colour in 2008, he needed 12,000 snails to create 1.4 ounces of dye – enough to colour a single handkerchief!  In 2000, a gram of Tyrian purple made from 10,000 mollusks costs two thousand euro.


The growing obsession with purple

Alexander the Great was fond of purple robes, and the Roman’s obsession with purple spread to a fever pitch across Europe, becoming similarly popular in Egypt and Persia.


Ramses II purple belt
Pictured above: This purple belt is dated 1180 B.C, was owned by Ramses II, ensured the Pharaoh stood out in the midst of battle.

Homer’s writings often referred to purple.  In Iliad, the belt of Ajax is purple, and the tails of the horses of mighty Trojan warriors were dipped in purple dye.  In the Odyssey, the wedding bed of Odysseus was adorned with purple blankets.

The Emperor Caligula even had the King of Mauritania murdered for wearing a purple mantle that outshone than his own.  Emperor Nero, with his erratic and unpredictable temper, made it punishable by death for anyone else to wear the colour.


Emperor Nero with purple robes
Pictured above: A representation of Nero wearing his purple robes.


Purple in the Byzantium Empire

In the early Christian era, purple was used for diplomatic gifts, or even for pages in the Bible.  Gospel manuscripts were written in gold on parchment dyed with Tyrian Purple.


Byzantium depiction of Jesus in purple robes
Pictured above: Byzantine Jesus in purple robes (represented in mosaic)

The Emperors of Byzantium passed a law forbidding anyone except themselves to use the colour – purple was restricted to the colouring of imperial silks, so a child born to a reigning emperor was ‘born in the purple’ to separate their status from those who had seized power using political or military means.


Burial shroud
Pictured above: The burial shroud of Charlemange (early 9th century).


Cardinal’s Purple

After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the supply of Tyrian Purple was cut off.  It began to lose its imperial status, a fate cemented when Pope Paul II declared that cardinals would now wear a new shade of purple obtained from the kermes insect, which was actually much closer to red than purple.  Bishops continued to wear traditional purple, with dyestuffs made from cheaper materials than the true Tyrian Purple.


Cardinals and bishops in purple
Pictured above: Cardinals (at the top) and bishops (below) at the Vatican.

This began the decline of purple in fashion, and it was replaced with scarlet as an indicator of wealth.  Purple is still associated with faith – priests wear purple when they hear confession, during Lent, or even as an alternative to black at funerals.


Development of synthetic dye

In 1856, 18-year-old chemist William Perkin was attempting to develop synthetic quinine as a cure for malaria.  Instead, his experiments resulted in the discovery of an aniline-based dye in a purple shade called mauveine, shortened to simply mauve.


William Perkin, developer of synthetic pruple dye mauve
Pictured above: William Perkin, early developer of synthetic dye

Perkin became a very rich man by patenting his purple colour and making it available to the masses.  It became fashionable to wear mauve – especially after Queen Victoria wore a mauve gown to the Royal Exhibition of 1862.  Perkin’s mauve dye was the first in a series of industrial modern dyes that completely transformed the fashion industry.


The modern evolution of purple

While purple remains associated with royalty – George VI wore purple in his official portrait, and purple was prominent in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 – it began to be recognized as a symbol of social change, particularly in women’s rights.  The Women’s Suffrage movement and feminism in the 1970s are associated with purple.


Womens Suffrage colours
Pictured above: Tricolour sashettes of purple, green and white identified women as suffragettes.

Counterculture in the 1960s is associated heavily with purple as depictions of the drug movement and psychedelics often feature purple, and it was popularized by musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and his song Purple Haze, or the rock band Deep Purple.

A protest against apartheid in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1989 became known as the Purple Rain Protest.  A police water cannon sprayed thousands of demonstrators with purple dye, which led to the slogan, The Purple Shall Govern.  This evolved into similar ‘colour cannon’ events at other protests, including purple canons in India in 2008, and Uganda in 2011.

Purple is now common across all applications – fashion, interiors, vehicles, even hair colour – everything you can imagine now comes in purple!


Empire State Building lit up in purple November 2013
Pictured above: The Empire State Building lit up in purple to raise awareness for World Prematurity Day on November 18th 2013.


Purples with Charles Parsons Interiors

It’s incredible to think of the history of purple leading to the interiors fabrics we offer you today.  Many of our collections include a purple option, a regal and romantic shade to bring life to your décor.


Majestic Silk by Charles Parsons Interiors
Pictured above: Majestic Silk in purple tones.

Savoy Imperial Purple upholstery by Charles Parsons Interiors Maze Purple upholstery by Charles Parsons Interiors Pebble Purple upholstery by Charles Parsons Interiors
Pictured above: Upholstery fabrics Savoy Imperial Purple, Maze Purple & Pebble Purple


La Perla Purple Passion drapery by Charles Parsons Interiors Partere Lilac Ash drapery by Charles Parsons Interiors  Tropicana Orchid drapery by Charles Parsons Interiors
Pictured above: Drapery fabrics La Perla Purple Passion, Partere Lilac Ash & Tropicana Orchid