Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Colours of clothing in the first half of the seventeenth century

1708 colour wheel from Traité de la peinture en mignature
This post is based on analysis of data obtained as part of the Stuart Tailor project. Over 6,000 wills dating from between 1603 and 1714 have been examined, for this post only those from 1603 to 1650 have been used. One problem when looking at this period is that from the start of the Civil War in 1642 the whole structure of wills being proved and probates taken fell into disarray. As a result the period after 1642 is not well represented. The amount of information given on colour is very limited, as you will see below.

Whose wills and inventories
The people whose wills and inventories have been examined represent the 90% of the population whose land ownership wasn’t scattered enough to be proved at the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury and York. To explain, if all your goods, land, etc., were in one area then probate would be granted at the local archdeaconry court (e.g. Sudbury), if in more than one archdeaconry then it would be proved at the Consistory, or Bishop’s Court, in the case of Sudbury that would be Norwich. If you where rich enough to have property in more than one diocese then Canterbury or York, and I’m not going to even think about all the “peculiars”.

Clothing in wills and inventories
Most wills do not mention clothing, for example in a set of 894 wills from Sudbury covering 1630-35, only 152 make any mention of clothes. With inventories often you will get simply a value for all apparel.  We have around 10,000 individually mentioned items of clothing, of which c.6,000 are pre 1650.  Of these 6,000 only 400 mention a colour. Of these 400, only 300 are main garments, the other 100 are aprons, gloves, hats, etc. So we are working with a very small number of items.

The colours
1 (a petticoat)
Brown and black
1 (a cloak)
Grain (red)
1 (a doublet)
1 (a cloak)
1 (a petticoat)
Russet (specifically listed as russet coloured)
White & Red
1 (a petticoat)

Reds – Our front runner is red, and you can add the crimson, grain, murrey and scarlet to it. Most of these are women’s petticoats, but there are also cloaks, coats, a safeguard and waistcoats. The only gown is a man’s and is murrey coloured.

Black – Is the second most listed colour, used for breeches, cloaks, coats, doublets, gowns, kirtles and petticoats. Black is obviously the colour of mourning and was still being given, but not as often as in the Elizabethan period. As one gentleman put it in 1606 “kinsfolk as come to my funerall shall have blackes, viz the gentlemen clokes and the gentlewomen gownes, but I would not have them invited to my said funerall because I would have noe great pompe or solemnitie thereat.” 

Greens – Are the third colour group and was used for almost everything: breeches, cloaks, coats, doublets, gowns, jerkins, petticoats and waistcoats.

White -  Has been used for breeches, coats, doublets, jerkins, petticoats and waistcoats.

Blues -  To the blue group, azure and watchet can be added. Again used for breeches, coats, jerkins, and  petticoats, but no doublets or waistcoats.

Grey, also ash coloured, which sounds prettier. Again breeches ,cloak, coat, doublet, and petticoat.

Browns – Again there are more or less the full spectrum of main garments: breeches, cloaks, coat, doublet, jerkin, and waistcoat. Tawny could be included with the browns, on the grounds that it can be assumed to range from a brownish orange to a light brown, it was used for breeches, a cloak, doublet, women’s gowns and a waistcoat.

Violet – sits between blue and purple, as shown on the very, very faded 1708 colour wheel shown above. It was used for breeches, coat, doublet, gown and petticoat.

The debateable colours: Deroy, pink and russet.

Deroy - Cotgrave (1611) gives us a useful description of deroy - “Was in old time purple; but now is the bright tawnie”

 Pink – Pink is one of those words that has so many definitions you don’t know where to start. Randle Holme in the Academy of Armourie refers to “Pinke, a kind of yellowish-green, a colour used by painters.” It was used to underpaint skin tones.

Russet – Russet is a fabric, it has only been listed here when it is specifically mentioned as a colour, e.g. “and a russet colour coat with two laces about the bottom”. What colour is it? In 1562 we have “the colour Russet, whiche is somewhat lighter then blacke.” In 1573 “If you will mingle a litle portion of white with a good quantitie of redde, you may make thereof a Russet, or a sadde Browne, at your discretion.”


  1. I have enjoyed reading this post, it is interesting how the names change; I think I am right in saying that scarlet was once a type of fabric and not a colour. And what colour might Ash be?

  2. Hi. Ash colour is literally the colour of ashes, whitish- or brownish-grey. Scarlet- sort of the other way around -in medieval times scarlet was obtained by dying with kermes, which was very expensive. As a result by the fifteenth century very expensive, top quality cloth could be referred to as scarlet, even if it wasn't that colour. So you can get references to black scarlet.

  3. As an addition to my comment above, the dye stuff kermes was thought to be a type of grain, it wasn't, it is a small insect. So strong reds are sometimes referred to as grain, or ingrain or grainy, hence the grain coloured petticoats.

  4. Thank you for your response. Your point regarding grain colour is very interesting; I was brought up using Cochineal from Kermes as colouring for icing for cakes so was aware of it.

    As for Ash, I was thinking perhaps of the colour of the bark of Ash trees - obviously I over-thought it!

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  6. "Deroy" is an anglisezed meanning for "bleu de roi", a dark indigo dyed. I work mainly on costume in New-France, in probates and judiciary sources. I also made some summary of colors. Definition of shades, like "Isabelle" differ in French dictionnaries ans book like "Art du teinturier" who also not describe the shades but how to do it.
    I just discover your site last week and I am much impressed by your type of research similar to mine: use only first hand records.