Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Textiles, history, and missed cultural cues.

Today we're gonna talk about one of those mashups, a thing in history you need multiple discipline study (though not that much, hello) to really get.

Spain, wealth, and the clothing they wore in the 1500s. Seems random, but it still affects thinking today. No, really.

Okay, so we have a self portrait of El Greco. We'll start off with that.
Painted in the 1570s thereabouts. As modern people, our first thought is probably along the lines of "shit, that's dark". Which, yeah. But there's also El Greco's message. He's showing off. It's a self portrait saying "I am so badass I can paint this with only two shades of white, three of gray, and no true black paint". Any painter in that era would look at that, and first see skill.

Then there's the clothing, itself, that he's wearing. Yeah. All that black. The Spaniards started the black craze that carries on to this day. Know why? It's wasn't because it was slimming, or sophisticated. It's because it was EXPENSIVE.

In 1856, William Perkin invented the first synthetic dye. (Called mauve, but today we'd call it magenta. All those dusty pink pastel clothes from the late 1800s? Not tasteful dusty pink. Faded. Formerly magenta. The first bright, synthetic color, people went nuts. They called it the mauve decade.) Today, we take our fluorescent green tee shirts and raspberry pink yarn for granted. Before 1856, those colors were either very hard to create, or flat out impossible.

1492, Columbus discovered the Americas. By 1493, he was looting, enslaving, and murdering in the Caribbean. By 1545 Spain had discovered Potosi in what is now Bolivia, and were literally minting money- there was a Spanish royal mint right there, and they shipped back Spanish coin already finished to Spain. (This is one of the reasons Spanish ships are a favorite for salvage archaeologists to look for.) The Silver Standard - the wealth money was based on - was founded around Potosi and the unbelievable amounts of silver Spain was hauling back to the old world.

In short, Spain was rolling in it. And they wanted to show off. Before Worth came along, 1890ish, the value of clothing was not affected by who made it. It was based entirely on the market value of what it was made out of. Expensive show-offy clothes were made with expensive fabrics. And those fabrics? Often black.
Dyeing fabric black was a two-pot process. Right there it doubled the labor involved, which means more time, which means more cost. The best black was done with indigo, from India, and then logwood from South America. You needed access to most of the world just to get the dyes.

Lace? All made by hand. Very time consuming, very expensive. Linen was most common, but for Really White lace to go with your Really Black tunic, you needed cotton. From India. Chlorine bleach wasn't invented until a century later, so there was a great deal of fussing around with chalk and sugar and laying it out in the sun to fade white. The starch involved to get things to stand up like that was also time-consuming and therefore fussy and expensive.

And then, the gold.
It's gold. Sure, some of this you could fake with yellow dye, and I'm sure they did. But gold thread was made by twisting gold - REAL GOLD - foil around usually yellow silk thread. The silk knots on the sleeves, up there in the pic of the grumpy lady? Yarn or cord made from multiple plys of real gold thread. NOT CHEAP.

So, we go to galleries, or hit history books, and we see these pictures of people wearing black and it doesn't register and we move on to something more interesting and just don't get it.

The black, worn by those Puritan fuckers? The Calvinists? Not meant to be modest and minimalist. It's "look how important we are. God loves us so much we're rich." Not the message modern people get, from the view of a hundred and fifty years of modern industrial chemistry. We just see black. Not the wealth, and certainly not the exploitation of a continent that paid for it.

This is the painting commissioned by Elizabeth the First (occasionally Great) to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Yep. She dressed like the Spanish, the ones she'd just defeated, to show off how important and rich she was. In black. And the globe, there, under her hand? That's South America showing. (Their cartography sucked back then, what can I say.) Rampant colonialism and greed, all celebrated in sophisticated, slimming black.

Ugh. I'm gonna go find my pink sweatshirt.


Jennifer Court said...

This is brilliant--thank you!

Alwen said...

I love how you pull all this stuff together.

Adding to the expense of black, laundering and sun-drying would fade it, so it needed to be re-dyed if the wearer wanted it to stay dark.

Imagine the fun of taking one of those garments to bits to re-dye them!

Heather Hatch said...

A teensy nitpick, but you say "This is one of the reasons Spanish ships are a favorite for salvage archaeologists to look for."

Archaeologists are not interested in silver coins - most nautical archaeologists are far more interested in the ships themselves than anything on them.

Salvers are people who are really *just* interested in taking valuable things (especially gold and silver) off of old shipwrecks, and are usually happy to destroy any historical materials to get at it.

Your statement is conflating the two - I promise they have very different agendas and approaches to shipwrecks!

Otherwise, you make some really great points about material wealth, colonialism, and art form the period. I especially liked your analysis of EI's portrait post Armada.

Pinkskatinggirl said...

Your essays are fascinating. I am so glad you are back to posting...Your posts remind me to evaluate, consider context, open my eyes... Gotta go knit on my sock.

scifiknitter said...

Great stuff. It's not easy to start posting again after a hiatus, but I'm very glad that you are writing again.