BLACK - The story of a Colour - No3 : BLACK AND THE SUMPTUARY LAWS

How a reactionary set of laws led to the democratisation of the most desired colour

Until the 13th century black dyes created tones that were generally closer to brown or grey. This changed in the 14th century with the enactment of sumptuary laws across Europe. The laws differed from state to state but they had an uniform effect. Certain colours and fabrics were forbidden to plebeian classes, irrespective of whether one was a wealthy merchant or powerful magistrate, and reserved for the nobility and aristocracy. This was possibly a response to the social upheaval across Europe caused by the plague which had killed a large part of the population and created social and economic uncertainty. The laws inadvertently caused the popularity of black to grow as it was not a restricted colour and had lost its negative connotations of the early medieval period. It's demand amongst non aristocratic wealthy citizens led to new dying techniques that created deep rich sumptuous blacks that, ironically, found favour with prince and pauper.

Colours like ' Venetian scarlets ' may have been reserved for the nobility but even they could not resist the pull of black. In many ways the sumptuary laws were a failed reactionary response to massive social change. They rigidly attempted to maintain social segregation as the mercantile class grew in power. However, the desire for black amongst the royal courts of Europe did not abate even though it was a democratic colour.

The most beautiful black was created from oak apple which was rich in tannins and found on the leaves of certain oaks that grew in Eastern Europe, The Middle East and North Africa. Such rich black fabrics grew in price as the demand for black increased amongst the wealthy commoners, nobility and aristocracy. The fashion for the ' Black Style ' would remain until the 17th century.

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JACOB FUGGER (1459-1525) © Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

JACOB FUGGER (1459-1525) © Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo