By Amanda Greaves

Next time you are proudly striding around magnificently in new kit, take some time to think what messages you would have been sending out to the medieval eye. To the modern eye, a man in pink is gay and a habitual black-wearer is either a misery-guts or a Goth. But what, if anything, did the colours you wore mean in the 15th Century?

Try to lose modern perceptions of colour when you are choosing medieval clothes, bear in mind that there were different ideas about which colours go well together and what was an everyday colour to wear in the street. Us non-daring modern people instinctively go for dark green, dark red, grey, navy and black in preference to the often gaudy colour combinations borne in the 15th century.

Be aware that medieval paintings are not always a good source for colours, as pigments used for painting were used for effect and were often entirely different in nature and cost from cloth dyes. Hence, a common farmer in a painting may be wearing a gorgeous bright red and green outfit simply because it makes the painting a bit more colourful. But there may have been other reasons the painter chose the colours. They may want to depict a person’s humility in the eyes of God, purity, virginity or even treachery.

And in the period when many men were engaged in a contract of livery and maintenance, men and nobility may have had to make sure they didn't allude to the wrong heraldic or livery colours. Imagine wearing blue and murrey in a Stafford’s-only bar! Heraldic colour combinations may also have carried over into civilian-wear, (though the extent to which livery colours were worn in civilian life needs closer investigation). Any heraldry student will know you don't place a ‘metal’ on a ‘metal’, or a colour on a colour - but who in their right mind would wear yellow (gold) and white (silver) together anyway!
Medieval men liked to 'peacock' themselves as much as possible and were not afraid to wear bright colours. Illustrations often depict women as more demure in their dress and demeanour, rather like a peahen. Natural dyes tend to lose a lot of colour if the garment is washed, and some are not lightfast. Poorly-dyed medieval clothes would have been prone to fading.


Those fabulously posh portraits of English and European royalty depict them in very smart black clothing, trimmed with dark fur, embellished with gold jewellery and embroidery, and often wearing a rich red to complement the look. In fact, black clothing was supposed to symbolise humility and plainness, and for this reason was associated with monastic life. There is some debate as to whether black was ‘posh’. Medieval authorities often tried to restrict the colours ordinary people wore, to distinguish them from the nobility and city élites in their finery. The colours mentioned are often red, purple and black. It is true that some methods of dyeing black involved huge amounts of chemicals such as alum, which would erode the fabric, the inference is that this would make black-wearing costly. But on the other hand, black had ‘humble’ connotations and if it was worn by some monastic and clerical orders (which swore to live in poverty), this suggests it could be dyed cheaply as well. A mix of the three basic dyes, madder, weld and woad, with a lot of alum, could create a black. Acorns were allegedly used as black dye, as were ‘galnuts’ or oak apples, which were also used to make ink. Black as a colour was also associated with darkness and death. Black is not often depicted in period illustrations of clothing, perhaps indicating it was not such an attractive colour to wear, in comparison to brighter colours.


Possibly a commoner version of black, using exhaust dye (left over from the black dye vat), grey was also associated with monastic life. Could have been one of the easiest colours to come by.


A strong colour, which is frequently illustrated and spoken of as a preferred colour of the richer sorts. But according to some sources, red was actually seen as the colour symbolising charity. Pinkish-tone red and an almost crimson shade was also fairly common as a dye, being made from madder root mixed with chemical ingredients, such as alum; although the richest and darkest reds would take extra dyeing. Most shades could be made from the basic dyes, though they may not have had the strength of colour. Brazilwood, was native to Europe, and was used in the manufacture of red fabric. According to some, boiled crabshells and urine made a red dye - others disagree! A deep brownish-red resin called dragonsblood was imported from India to make a deep red dye, but would have been expensive. True crimson dye, known as ‘grayne’ was made from oriental insect secretions and was expensive. Bright scarlet is likely to have been a much more costly dye, and some have quoted the use of the mineral cinnabar, or vermilion, in dyeing.


Pink was quite easy to produce from madder root and/or brazilwood and could have been produced relatively cheaply. Pink is a good candidate for poorer colours but, according to the illustrators, still flashy enough to be worn by the better sort of person. Pink was even used on a few liveries. Ladies' dresses are frequently illustrated as pink, which raises the question as to whether it was girlie colour even in the Middle Ages! However, men in medieval paintings are frequently illustrated wearing pink hose.


Green was popular for house interiors, and embodied youthfulness, (as in the colour of the Spring landscape), health-giving qualities and fertility. 'Giving a girl a green gown' means doing things that would get grass stains all over her dress. Green may also have had an earthy, rustic association (as in Chaucer's Yeoman). Oddly enough, green was also regarded until quite recently (even by the Irish) as an 'unlucky' colour, symbolising the decay after death, with pagan and supernatural connotations. Green seems to have been popular as a contrast to red, instead of blue. Buckthorn berries and logwood are both sources of green dye, and combining woad and weld dyes and other common vegetable dyes could produce colours varying from muddy green to emerald to spring green. The richest and brightest greens (rather than dark greens) are often depicted on rich people, and the green emerald was one of the most sought-after precious stones.


Believe it or not, bright blue is one of the most likely candidates for a ‘rich’ colour. It was the most expensive colour in painting, and although blue dye from the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) was actually one of the basic and most commonly-used dyes, it required something like nine months of processing work, which included fermentation. This did not bar it from being worn by ordinary people, but the brightest (not necessarily the darkest) blues would require the most treatment. According to medieval commentators, blue was extremely pleasing to the eye and had celestial connotations. It is said in period sources that lapis lazuli – an extremely expensive painting pigment – could be used for dyeing. The colour was often used in paintings to depict for the gown of the Madonna. The value of woad dye was illustrated in medieval Europe. Some parts of France grew rich on the back of woad trading and dyeing, and as the ‘royal’ colour in France (the arms of the King of France are gold fleur-de-lys on a blue field), it was especially revered in France. The lust for blue drove many medieval farmers to ruin. They could grow woad very easily and make a fast profit, but the plant stripped the land of its salts and left it barren and unusable. As a result, laws on woad farming were introduced in France and the Italian states. True indigo, imported all the way from India, was also used, but was much more expensive and did not really prevail until the 16th century.


Made from natural plant dyes such as weld and saffron, yellow must have also been easy to come by. It was said by some painters to signify dignity. However, others think it could also represent treachery or envy, as Giotto painted Judas Iscariot wearing yellow. A fellow re-enactor claims yellow was a stereotypical colour of miserable people, trying to look cheerful. Jews were from time to time forced to wear a yellow star or badge to identify themselves, Cathar heretics were forced to wear a double yellow cross on their clothing, and there is also mention of Irish soldiers serving under English command being forced to dye their clothes in saffron. There is some debate what this actually was. True saffron, the dried stamen of an oriental crocus, was imported into Europe and was very expensive, but it seems that native European croci were also passed off as saffron, even for cooking purposes.


Orange as a colour is neither illustrated nor talked about very often in medieval sources, although it could certainly be made with some ease. Some commentators say orange was referred to as tenn or tan in heraldic sources. There is similar confusion with ‘russet’ which we today assume to be a reddish-brown orangey colour, but some say this was the medieval word for brown. Most warm shades could be dyed fairly easily and cheaply. The colour is sometimes illustrated as a contrast to blue, as in the case of the Mowbray livery.


Means holiness and purity – think of the Pope! White sounds like an obvious 'poor' colour, but seeing as neither wool nor linen is naturally a pristine white, it may have been reserved for the better-off. There would be little point in wearing something white just to get it really scruffy. Philip the Good of Burgundy had some very fancy pages kitted out in white clothing at one point. White was also worn within some ranks of the clergy, perhaps confusingly suggesting it was also regarded as plain or humble. The vast majority of smocks, shirts, head coverings (not hats or hoods) and also the few sources for partlets show they were made of white linen.


Anathema to re-enactors! Imperial or Byzantium Purple was the stuff of Roman and Holy Roman emperors and was copied by extremely senior churchmen and in the later middle ages, the king. Did you know it takes 10,000 murex shellfish to create just 1g of the colour? Thought not! The trade in the colour ended in the 1450's with the fall of Constantinople and, therefore, clothing dyed in this substance. I’m sure that it was also restricted by very tight laws in Byzantium, where all the dyeing was done, to only top quality silks. Having said that, other purples hues would be possible to make from other pink-red and blue dyes. Some plant dyes such as Turnsole are similar to litmus paper and could be made to turn red, yellow or purple depending on the pH of the dyebath. Reddish violets were probably quite possible to make, along with dusky lilac-greys; but remember the medieval restrictions on wearing purple. Such restrictions are probably referring to the richest merchants and leading guildsmen in the great medieval cities, who could afford to wear the same stuff as the nobility, but lesser gentry and knights may also have been included in this.


Brown could range from an uninspiring beige to a rich mid or dark brown, taking in all kinds of hues and shades. A good variety of natural dyes could be used to make browns and, therefore, variations were open to many classes of people. An interesting colour combination is brown and yellow - this appears in a number of illustrations and appears to represent a medieval 'contrast'. Brown also had humble and rustic associations.

Note on Dyeing

Dyeing was probably not something done in the home by ordinary people. Dyers were usually urban craftsmen who dyed large quantities of fabric in huge dyebaths. Ordinary people are most likely to have bought ready-dyed cloth from traders in towns or from fairs and local markets. There is evidence that some cloth was dyed abroad and imported. Records of the 15th century show that most of the raw wool in Yorkshire was actually bought up by London merchants and some was shipped to the Netherlands, scoured, spun, woven and dyed there, then brought back to England for sale. The lack of fears over woad-growing in England suggest this was not done on the scale it was on the Continent.
If you want to experiment then go ahead! It’s great fun, I highly recommend trying. Even if you never get enough cloth to make more than a pouch you'll develop a feel for the right colours; although don’t expect to gain the same skill as a mediaeval dyer in a couple of weeks or a couple of years!

Elizabethan Colours

Although this next extract is not for the medieval period, I thought that these Elizabethan colour names would still be useful to give us an idea of the colours available:
Bristol red a pleasant red
cane colour yellowish tint
carnation a colour resembling raw flesh
crane colour a grayish white
dead Spaniard a pale grayish
tan gingerline reddish violet
goose turd yellowish green
hair bright tan
incarnate red
Isabella light buff
Lincoln green bright green
lusty gallant light red
maiden hair bright tan
milk and water bluish white
murrey purplish red
orange tawney orangeish brown
peach deep pinkish orange
plunket light blue
popinjay bluish green
primrose pale yellow
puke dirty brown
rats colour dull grey
sad any dark colour
sangyn blood red
sheep colour natural
strammel red
straw light yellow
tawney brown tinged with yellow
watchet pale greenish blue
whey pale whitish blue
willow light green
Some other colours Dove-grey, pansy, scratch-face, verdigris dawn, water-colour, bean-blue, ape’s laugh, crystalline, smoked ox, tristami, flowering rye fading flower, glosling green, canary, argentine, merry widow, resurrection kiss me darling, chimney-sweep, amaranth, flax-blue bottle-green, judas-colour, ox-blood, dying monkey, brown bread, mortal sin, ham-colour, and love-longings.