Woman’s dress. Taffeta and silk. France, c.1869.
This gown bears the name of Madame Vignon, who was a known dressmaker to Empress Eugénie at this date and indeed, supplied the gown worn for Eugénie's religious marriage.
Previous to 1857 all dyes used for the colouration of fabric were of organic origin; it was during this year that a Lyon firm perfected the process of applying a brilliant coloured lichen dye to cotton, which had not been previously successful. The shade was produced around the same time that a young William Perkin originated a chemical dye stuff that he termed ‘Mauveine'. The timing of these two innovations was key and while Perkin was certainly the first to originate a chemical dye, he found himself racing to secure a patent for his formula before it was seized by other chemists similarly engaged. Many dye firms developed their own formulas based on Perkin's principle, in France these included Alexandre Franc et cie and Monnet et Dury.1
Due to their highly fugitive nature organic dyes had been prone to colour transfer and as a result their intensity quickly faded with laundering, wear and exposure to light. It is commonly known that the colour purple has been historically reserved for use by the monarchy or persons in exceptionally exalted stations. The exclusive nature of this hue is owed to its origins: secreted from the tiny glands of gastropod molluscs found in parts of the Mediterranean, Indian and pacific oceans; with one mollusc yielding only a few drops of dye. It has been estimated that 12,000 molluscs would have produced only 0.049oz of dye.2
The accidental discovery by William Henry Perkin of a new chemical process which could produce vibrant and lasting colour that could be turned to dying fabrics represented a significant advance in the fashion and textile industry, not least because the earlier alternatives had such rarefied origins. Such was the infectious enthusiasm for the new dye in the fashionable world that contemporary commentators mocked the new craze as 'mauve measles'. The term mauve was first employed in the context of colour, around this time, and what had been ‘Perkin's Purple' was suddenly likened, if only in name, to a more organic source: the French name for the mallow flower. Once Perkin's discovery was made public numerous companies and individuals raced to secure patents for their own colours. In such number did this occur that often the only distinguishing factor between the hues themselves was their nomenclature, and even this was not always distinct.3
What began in 1857 as an accidental discovery swiftly travelled across Europe; it seems that London was particularly hard hit by the epidemic, as noted by Hippolyte Taine who referred disdainfully to the ‘outrageously crude colours' seen about the city.4 The example shown gives testament to the exceptional longevity of what is likely to be an aniline dye. As with many of the fashion innovations that materialised during the Second Empire, Eugénie is popularly credited with proliferating the trend.5
Zoe Viney 2010
Image: Woman's dress France c 1869. [T.118-1979] Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.