Many of the colours we’ve launched have quaint origin tales that imbue them with a certain charm. But Tyrian Purple – arguably the most noble colour of them all –has a truly ugly back story that’s more likely to fill you with revulsion. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to call it a 'back-end' story, seeing as how the famous purple dye was actually extracted from a gland just behind the rectum of a snail.
VIOLATED FOR VIOLET.
Each snail produced only a few drops of the precious secretion, and as many as 250,000 snails were required to produce one single tablespoon of dye!
Not just any old snail, mind you, but from several species of predatory sea snails known as Poirieria Zelandica, commonly called the spiny murex, found predominantly in the eastern Mediterranean.
Each snail produced only a few drops of the precious secretion, and so vast quantities were needed for commercial purposes. By some accounts as many as 250,000 snails to produce one single tablespoon of dye!
All these snails had to be collected by hand, crushed, salted over three days and then boiled for ten more. Only then would they release the rich purple colour. To ensure the dye didn’t wash out of the fabric, a mordant (a liquid that combines with the dye to render it holdfast) was needed. The most popular of these was urine.
Again. Yes, really.
Pause, if you will, and picture hundreds of vats of rotting shellfish bubbling away for ten days in a heady stew of human urine mixed with wood ash. According to historians of the time, the smell was so diabolical that “Purple vats had to be outside the city walls because no one could live next to the horrible smell. Even the clothes that had been dyed with them had a distinctive odour of fish, urine and sea.”
COAGULATED BLOOD. SO HOT RIGHT NOW.
Tyrian Purple was not an exact colour, but varied significantly from a warm reddish base through to cool bluish one.
But, oh, the colour!
Tyrian Purple was an impossibly rich and vibrant hue that instantly invested a garment with an air of regal grandeur and splendour. Strangely though, Tyrian Purple was not an exact colour, but varied significantly from a warm reddish base through to cool bluish one depending on where the shellfish originated, what mordant was used and what time of day it was dried (midday sun resulted in a more bluish tint).
The most highly prized tint resembled the deep red hue of coagulated blood, supposedly because that carried divine connotations.
Whatever its shade, there is not denying its importance in the ancient world. Tyrian Purple is mentioned not only in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, but even in The Bible.
But perhaps nothing speaks to its magnificence more than the fact that the name 'Phoenicia' – the civilization that birthed the colour, of which Tyre was a city (hence the name Tyrian) – is thought to mean “land of purple.”
During the Roman Republic, a victorious general was allowed to wear a purple toga bordered in gold, whilst senators could wear a toga with purple stripe.
With the enormous costs involved in its manufacture, Tyrian Purple was incredibly expensive. So much so that contemporary sources state that it was literally worth its weight in gold. Perhaps because of this, it quickly became synonymous with royalty and the sale of purple cloth remained a jealously guarded state monopoly – anyone caught attempting to manufacture the colour with inferior dyes could, well, die.
Cleopatra was apparently a huge fan of Tyrian Purple; Not only did she dress in it, but she also used it for her royal barge, the walls of her palace and even her sofas.
Julius Caesar, in turn, was a huge fan of Cleopatra and by extension, her purple kingdom. So much so, that when he returned to Rome, he decreed that only Caesars could wear purple togas. This was felt, by the Patrician aristocracy, to be deeply unfair as he was the only Caesar. Perhaps that’s why Brutus stabbed him?
This ‘emperors only’ trend continued, and, by the time of Nero, anyone wearing purple risked being put to death. And it was not until the reign of Diocletian in the third century did it become legal for the patricians to wear purple —and even then, they had to pay a hefty tax.
Gradually over time, purple’s exclusively royal image relaxed somewhat, and, by the time of the early Roman Republic, a victorious general was allowed to wear a purple toga bordered in gold, whilst senators could wear a toga with purple stripe.
TO DYE FOR.
In 1453 Constantinople was sacked by the Ottoman Empire, and the ancient recipe for Tryian Purple was destroyed.
Throughout history, humans have displayed a nasty propensity for eradicating other species. Mammoths, dodos, thylacine, aruchs and, well, the list goes on.
And the very same fate would have undoubtedly befallen the hapless Murex but for a quirk of historical fate. In 1453 Constantinople was sacked by the Ottoman Empire, and the ancient recipe for Tryian Purple was destroyed.
Mankind’s loss was undoubtedly Murex’s gain, and no doubt there was some serious rejoicing amongst the small number of Murex who still remained.
But whilst the Murex may have escaped eradication, there are now more than 500 species of land animals teetering on the edge of extinction. And sadly, most of them will vanish entirely within 20 years. What makes this, the sixth mass extinction, even more poignant, is the fact it is entirely because of human activity.
Seems we never learn.
PURPLE THROUGH THE AGES.
In Medieval and Renaissance times, purple was less frequently used by kings and instead became the colour of choice for professors in Europe’s new universities. However, it still played an important part in religious paintings.
During the Elizabethan era, only close relatives of the royal family were allowed to wear purple. And purple continued its royal romance right into the 20th century, with Elizabeth ll featuring it heavily in her investiture in 1953.
However, by the 60’s purple had lost its royal exclusivity and became associated with counterculture, psychedelics, and musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple.
And obviously we can’t do a blog on purple without mentioning Prince! His Royal Purpleness was a huge fan and would use purple in his clothes, on his instruments and in his stage lighting. Why did he love it so much? Well, the clues in the name, people – Prince – a royal name needed a royal colour. Curiously though, after his death, there was plenty of controversy when his sister told the press his favourite colour was actually orange.
Once again, yes, really!
LOOK LIKE A QUEEN/KING.
LIMITED ED. 150 PIECES FOR MEN + WOMEN.
Thanks to modern synthetic dyes, you can now own a stunning Tyrian Purple Magic Fit® Tee without having to pay a king’s ransom. And, you won’t have the blood of millions of sea snails on your conscience either. But most importantly, you can look every bit as regal as a Caesar or Cleopatra without having to smell like rancid shellfish.