Ask This Librarian: Black clothing

I got a chance to see the movie Agora in the theatres a month or so ago – it’s the story of Hypatia and the fall of the library of Alexandria. One of my friends asked me a question based on my comment about the movie – that they got lots of the historical details very right, but that I noted that one exception was that the Parabalani (the fanatical sect responsible for her death) are wearing very black black. Which, historically, is not very probable.

(You can, as I point out below, start with wool from a black sheep. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case: both the very open weave of the fabric and the way it hung made me fairly sure it was linen, not wool. Also, generally, wool and silk take color better (i.e. darker/richer color for the equivalent amount of dye) than linen, though there are always variables.)

Also, I’m taking this answer a little more conversational than is my usual habit here, because it came out of an existing comment I’d made.

So, my friend asked:

At what level of technology could one get black cloth reasonably cheaply? If other factors come in to either the black dye or the cheapness, which I imagine they do, what are they?

My answer:

The question of black dyes is not so much whether you could get the color, but rather how long the color lasted, and how ‘true’ the black is. A truly lasting, very black dye only became reasonably inexpensive with the modern chemical dyes – you get one for cotton in the 1860s (aniline black) and a sulfur version in the 1890s that works on wool. (Here’s a timeline that gives you some idea of other useful dates).

Before that, you had three choices:

1) Dye and overdye something in a dark color (logwood and walnut are the two most widely used). This is often fairly affordable (assuming the starting dye is readily available), but as the clothing wears, it will tend to ‘weather’ in color depending on the dye, and you’ll go from black to a sort of purplish-gray black (logwood) or a brownish-black (walnut). However, many of these options are fairly corrosive to fabric – so you can get a really dark black, but have to replace your clothing much more often.

2) You could overdye a piece of clothing in several different very rich colors (cochineal, indigo, etc.) some of which were quite expensive. (There was, in fact, cochineal in use before it was available from the Americas, but it was quite rare and pricy.) Again, how well it lasted through washing (especially with fairly abrasive and limited washing options) would depend on the fabric and the dyes used.

3) You could start with dark-colored fiber to start with. (However, anyone who’s ever seen a black sheep in person will remember that there’s often a fair bit of dark brown in there, too.)

You do start seeing black turn up a lot more regularly in clothing in 16th century Spain (though, again, mostly among people with the money and status to afford it.)


  • Using corrosive dyes would mean having to replace clothing much more often – not something people on the poorer end of the economic scale would be likely to do. It’s incidentally much easier to get a good solid brown than it is to get black.
  • Using multiple dyes (especially when the dyes themselves are expensive) is even more expensive – again, not very likely except for the people who could use it as a status symbol, though certainly possible.
  • While you’ll definitely see dark colors on people lower on the economic ladder, it’s reasonable to expect that most of these would not be true blacks – they’d have a grayish edge, or a brownish one, or a purplish one, or a bluish one, depending on which dyes were used and the starting fabric. Or you’d have a black garment for the first few months, and then it would gradually start to lose colorfastness with wear and washing.

What does it mean when we see historical pictures with people wearing lots of black?

For example, both 16th century Spain and the Puritans are widely known for wearing lots of black. Plimoth Plantation, a historical recreation of 17th century community in southern Massachusetts, says this on their What to Wear in the 17th Century page.

Many people think the English colonists in the 1620’s (some people call them “Pilgrims”) always wore black clothes. This may be because in many pictures of that time from England, people are shown wearing black clothes. People usually had their pictures painted while wearing their best clothes. In the 1620s, best clothes were often black. It was not easy to dye cloth a solid, long-lasting black. It took a great deal of skill. People kept clothes made of such beautiful, expensive cloth for best. Everyday clothes were made of many colors. Brown, brick, yellow and blue were common. Other clothes were made of cloth that was not dyed. These clothes were gray or white, the natural color of the cloth.

In other words, those portraits we see are the equivalent of our prom dress and wedding pictures – not the clothing we wear every day. Another factor is that it’s much easier to create lasting black paint than it is to create lasting black dye, so it was also a relatively easy way to appear more prosperous than the person might in fact be.

We also know that…

  • The Romans used black togas at times of mourning (along with other dark colors.)
  • Black shows up in a variety of other times and places – though again, usually among people who were at least moderately well off, if not rich.

Some additional links of interest:

And finally – a great book about color (though mostly not about dyes directly) is Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette: highly recommended as a tour through the origins of many of our colors, and their cultural significance.

My notes on my answer:

This is really one of those topics where background experience helps. I tried a variety of searches (history of dye, historical clothing colors, and then went “Y’know, I have background experience.” and went digging that way.

That experience is having spent a fair bit of time around folks interested in historical clothing. One of the great things about historical re-enactment groups is that there’s a great deal of focus on doing things – so, for example, putting fabric in dye pots and seeing what happens, based on historical documentation and recipes. Once I started digging in that realm, I found a lot of useful information, including pictures. (I could also have gone digging in colonial and pioneer era materials in the US, but for the purposes of this particular question, that’s a little less useful.)

So, I was trying terms like “natural dye black”, and “SCA black clothing” and so on. (SCA stands for the Society of Creative Anachronism, one of the largest historical recreation organizations out there.)

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1 comment to Ask This Librarian: Black clothing

  • & then we start getting into the fact that “black” is one of those words that cover a lot of ground, historically– I’m personally a subscriber to the notion that the explosion of colour names has to do with cheap dyes making colours readily available to the common man, but the fact remains that the historical record is littered with words for colours that…probably don’t mean what they sound like they mean to modern ears, like “wine dark sea.”

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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