One of the most notable developments in textiles and fashion during the Victorian Era was the invention of synthetic dyes of which aniline violet or “Mauveine” was the first. Mauveine was invented accidentally in 1856 by a chemistry student named William Henry Perkin. Perkin, aged 18, had been given a challenge by his instructor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, to develop a method of synthesizing Quinine that would be cheaper than its natural form. After one failed attempt, Perkin was cleaning a black substance, aniline, out of the flask with alcohol when he noticed the alcohol reacting with the substance to produce a purple solution.
After further experimentation, Perkin found that the purple aniline substance was suitable as a fabric dye, working especially well on silk. Subsequently, Perkin patented his new invention in August 1856 and then proceeded to develop it for commercial use and marketed under the name “Mauveine”. Also, Perkin found that tannin acts as an excellent mordant, allowing the dye to be fixed to cotton. On the other hand, silk was so receptive to aniline dyes that it could over-absorb the dye, making it difficult to dye in light shades, thus the silk was dyed in weak soap lather. Also, if too much dye was used, the silk also became hard, acquiring more scroop (a crisp rustling sound) which was not always desirable.
Up to this time, the only major source for true purple dye was Tyrian Purple which was made from the secretion of several species of predatory sea snails found in the Eastern Mediterranean (later, other suitable species of sea snails were found in the Atlantic and Pacific). Tyrian Purple was very expensive and hard to produce in quantity and traditionally, the color had been reserved for the upper classes. In comparison, Mauveine was extremely cheap because the aniline was derived from coal tar and coal was abundant throughout Great Britain and Western Europe.
The significance of Perkins’s discovery was not so much in the discovery itself but rather in that fact that that fact that he was the first to turn it into a commercial product, thus founding a new industry. The idea of synthetic dyes were not new; as early as 1834, a chemist named Friedlieb Runge had isolated a substance from coal tar that turned a beautiful blue color when treated with chloride of lime.
Mauveine caught on with the public in a major way and it wasn’t long before Perkin and other chemists had developed and brought to market a wide range of aniline and other chemical dyes in colors including various shades of blue, green, red, and yellow.
The advent of synthetic dyes revolutionized fashion. It was now possible to dye fabric in colors far brighter than anything possible with natural dyes and it could be done inexpensively. When combined with the development of mass production processes for fabric, it was now possible to produce brightly colored fabrics in large quantities that were affordable for more people. The industrial revolution had truly arrived for fashion.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at just a few dresses made from the new synthetic dyes:
The popularity of Mauveine was cemented when the Empress Eugenie of France (who was one of the leading fashion mavens of Europe in the 1850s – 1860s) adopted the color into her wardrobe, allegedly because it matched the color of her eyes. The development of the crinoline also helped push things along in that the vast expanses of fabric used in a hoop skirt showed off the luster of the mauveine dye to its best advantage.
By the early 1860s, the craze for mauvein had died down and the public’s attention had turned to a wide variety of other aniline-based dye colors coming on the market such as Magdala Red, Manchester Brown, Martius Yellow, Nicholson’s Blue, aniline yellow, Bleu de Lyon, Bleu de Paris, and aldehyde green. Almost overnight, the market for natural dyes collapsed and eventually, even the natural colors had their synthetic replacements.