Tag Archives: Dr Susan Kay-Williams

Imperial Purple to Denim Blue: The Colourful History of Textiles @ Book to the Future


You go into that new shop you’ve been dying to visit and you’re met with the sight of multitudes of coloured clothing spattered everywhere around you. There’s that purple blouse, or the green sweater, the blue denim shorts, the white trousers, the black t-shirts and the red dresses.  And it’s these colours that make up our surroundings today. It’s these colours which hang around everywhere you go. And it was these colours that Dr Susan Kay-Williams passionately talked about in her lecture.

It’s taken for granted everyday how we can now buy so many pieces of different coloured clothing. Dr Kay-Williams took us right back to the start with the invention of imperial purple. Considered imperial as it was the colour which only European regents and the papacy could afford to wear. She enthusiastically went through the painstaking dying process workers had to go through to transfer small amounts of colour onto large materials to be sold by merchants. That wasn’t all, Dr Kay-Williams gripped the crowd’s attention from the start and went through each of the major colours through the hour. 

Her witty historical facts followed spontaneously throughout the presentation such as Alexander the Great’s fondness for purple robes and the Roman’s obsession of purple which soon reached fever-pitch all across Europe. Alongside this an exploration of Venetian scarlet was made which adorned the walls of the Royalty soon after purple, there was the bleaching white which Elizabeth I wore to acclaim and black which Philip the good wore till his death. Not until the final part of the presentation was blue delved into.

Blue: the most popular colour in the world. Blue, famous for adorning the Virgin Mary in paintings for centuries, later became the staple it is now when Levi picked it up to use on denim jeans. And as they say the rest is the past.

To stand in front of a small crowd of all ages trying to explain the historical values of dyeing clothes isn’t easy. But Dr Kay-Williams throughout the lecture stayed calm and represented her eloquent oratory skills which no doubt kept me absorbed. Combined with her refined speech her wittiness was appreciated and met with giggles from all ages of the crowd. She often dispersed heavy historical contextual detail with small pieces of trivia keeping the event lively but factual too.

Coming from a completely novice background in textiles, Dr Kay-Williams presentation was like a voyeuristic display filled with vibrant anecdotes of the glorious and not so glorious past. The discovery of these colours and their infusions with textiles is why we can afford to wear whatever we please in whichever colour we want. And expectantly it’s something which will always be around us for a long time to come.

By Shantok Jetha