Purple Reign: The History of an Extraordinary Color

Deborah Kraak

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Coffee House Club

Throughout history purple has enjoyed significance as an uncommon color associated with the ultimate—in royalty, power, spirituality, sexuality, magic, and decadence. Even though the 1856 creation of mauve, the world’s first synthetic dye, made the spectrum of purples widely available and theoretically blurred purple’s symbolic distinctions, the color has retained its caché and symbolism.

This presentation examines purple’s long reign as an extraordinary color in textiles and in Western culture, through art, fabrics, poetry, and fashion, from the Graeco-Roman world to the present. It also traces the discovery of purple dyestuffs in such unlikely sources as shellfish, human kidney stones, boa constrictor excrement, lichen, and coal tar.

Deborah Kraak is an independent museum professional, specializing in historic textiles and costume. The former textile curator at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum and assistant curator of textiles and costume at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Deborah has also been a consultant to museums, such as the Fogg Museum, the American Textile History Museum, and Baltimore Museum of Art, and to fabric companies and university collections. She has lectured widely about textiles in the period interior, including fabrics and carpets at Iolani Palace, Honolulu.