Sunday, June 25, 2017

Women's Dress Colors in the 1415 "Comedies of Terence"

You may or may not recall my exploration back in December of 2015 into the prominent colors used on women's clothing in the 1432 "Le Decameron". Since that time, I've been meaning to do a follow-up, looking at a different manuscript. That time has finally come.

When we begin to really look at color across the period is to see that some manuscripts stuck to a fairly basic palette, while others explored the possibilities of color a bit more. What's interesting, though, is that the colors larger stick to the same palette, and "off" or mixed colors show up as only a small percentage of all the basic colors represented. Here's what I mean:

This lovely chart shows the relative percentages of the basic colors found my collection of over 500 images of women from early 15th century French manuscripts. For this data, I looked at the topmost layer only. That "Other" category includes teal, gray, orange and a few colors I can only really describe as "grayish".

There are two versions of the "Comedies of Terence" from the the early 15th century. One was created by the Master of Flavius Josephus, and the colors are mostly on par with those of the Decameron, though a bit less vibrant. The other copy was created by the Master of Lucon, and this it the mansucript we'll look at today.

The Master of Lucon had an eye for color composition, and this manuscript, BNF Arsenal, MS 664 reserve, stands out as the result. The colors are vibrant and interesting, but at the same time they still fall mostly inside the familiar color palette of the period. The Master achieved this by choosing to outfit primary characters in colors found in that "Other" category, and to populate the backdrops with servants, midwives, and other lower class folks in the less intense colors of their class. Most of the number in that pie chart above for the non-primary colors come from this manuscript.

It's items like this work that help us get a better understanding of the real ways in which people may have dressed in this period. Since the Master of Lucon was willing to mix colors more than his contemporaries, we now have an idea that clothing in the period had more variation and depth than the more straight-forward palettes seen in books like the Decameron. It's invaluable, but at the same time, we must tread cautiously.

From folio 233v
Several of the outfits shown by characters in the Master of Lucon's version verge on the fanciful. Courtesans appear wearing hats that seem to defy all the rules of gravity, and their dresses seem more costume than fashion. It's possibly, therefore, that the Master sought to provide a rich, intriguing visual story that was as colorful and playful as the characters he painted. It's possible that he pushed the limits of what was real to create something that was unique and special. Regardless, knowing that these colors were represented gives us a clue that the artist at least thought people should be dressed in them, and that's something.

So, same as last time, I decided to identify the primary colors and then go look for fabric options to match. This time, I looked for just one each of a woolen from Dorr Mill, a worsted from wherever I could find one, a linen from, and a silk from B. Black & Sons. Same as before as well, that comes with the huge disclaimer that you should always request swatches of any fabric you are considering to check its suitability. If a link is broken, it likely means that fabric is no longer available, and all fabric swatches show below come from their respective sites

From folio 163v
Each of the plays in the manuscript has a slightly different color story from the rest. This is in part because main characters need to have their own look so things don't get confusing, but there's also interplay of location and class in the images, so the colors in one play might skew washed out, while the next is vibrant. Take a look, for example, at the difference between the two images above.

This makes narrowing the colors down to a snappy little palette like I could for Le Decameron a little trickier. I decided, therefore, to focus my attention on the primary female characters. In this way, I could weed out some of the more prevalent outliers, and find the colors that really make up the look of this manuscript. I found these six dominant colors.

Colors from The Comedies of Terence (BNF Arsenal, MS 664 reserve, c. 1415)
Just for the sake of comparison, and to drive home just how different the Master of Lucon's color style was compared to the more typical palette of Le Decameron, these are the colors from that:

Colors from Le Decameron (Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, 1432)
The green has a very slight difference, but not much. All the other colors, however, are quite different. It's important that I stress that the orange and teal from The Master of Lucon's colors scheme belong in the 3% of all top-layer dress colors represented in the images I've looked at. In the manuscript, however, they prance across the pages as the main characters that sport them move from scene to scene.


From folio 11r
The pink falls into a family that feels mostly dominated by what can best be described as a kind of muted baby pink. Maybe even, dare I say it, millennial pink (which I find both awesome and hilarious). You'd think that pink's current popularity would make it easy to find it rendered in wool, but it's just as difficult to locate this sort of peachy shade as it is to find the fuchsia-toned pink that's also popular in this period.

1) Dorr Mill's Lightest Watermelon is a pretty traditional baby pink that mostly works as a match. For a less baby pink, take a look at Old Rose. 2) B Black & Son's Pink Worsted Flannel looks like it has a lot of brown in it, but that could be the lighting of the photo, based on the colors closer to the shadow. Even still, it's a sedate pink that isn't too far into left field. 3) I love Fabris-Store's Power Pink as a match here, and though I am trying to move into an all-wool dress wardrobe, I'm not sure I can pass that color up. 4) No silk for this one. After searching around, I ended up on the Woolrich site where I found a 13 oz pink, but also this Rosedust tweed (which is a wool/nylon blend). I include it not because it's a great match here, but because a textured or subtly patterned wool could be a solution when all else fails.


From folio 124r
Nearly all of the blues shown on the main female characters in the manuscript come close to a cornflower blue. Some lean a bit deeper and closer to a true blue, while others have more of a gray undertone, leaning into a slightly lavender shade of blue. Deep, saturated, ultramarine blues only appear in a few cases in the manuscript, letting these lighter shades take center stage. (That was a play reference. Get it?)

1) Dorr Mill's Bluebell Dorr Wool has the right about of lavender compared to their other light blue offerings and covers the darker side of the color. 2) This Gray Blue Herringbone Suiting from Mood Fabrics gives the right look. 3) Wisteria from Fabrics-Store is pretty spot on. 4) So is the Lago silk matka, which actually is the closest match of the lot.

Peach. Light orange? Orange-tan?

From folio 79v
This color is really seen in just one of the plays, but it's worn by one of the main characters, so it dominates that section of the book. Sometimes when I look at it, I think it's peach. Other times, I think it's tan. It's sort of like it wants to be orange, but it's not vibrant enough to fully classify. It's that ambiguous shade you find in places like your grandma's bathroom.

1) Dorr Mill's Peach Dorr Wool looks like a slightly tanner take. 2) Wm. Booth has a light brown worsted that's just about right. 3) Fabric-Store gets close with Apricot, but it's pretty significantly lighter. 4) the Sienna silk matka looks close in the highlights, but is very brown otherwise.

From folio 158r
Another main-character color, I can't express how excited I was the first time I came across this color in this manuscript several years ago. Teal is my favorite color, so to see it in my period was pretty exciting. In my head, the best description I have for it is "pool teal", if that makes any sense. 

1) Dorr Mill has two teals which look very similar. Seafoam is the lighter version that comes very close. 2) This one is Wm. Booth's Green Worsted, which looks like a green-leaning match, but may be more green in different light. 3) Fabrics-Store's Ceramic is a saturated match. Cascade is also close. 4) There was no match in the silk matka, but B Black & Sons does have this Aqua linen that looks like a pretty good option.

From folio 111v
Green doesn't show up too terribly often on women in the manuscript. In most cases, it's the same kind of light yellowish green seen in Le Decameron, if not just a hair less saturated on the whole.  This is actually an important little detail. Since we know that the Master of Lucon wasn't intimidated by color mixing to produce an interesting color range, the fact that he did not mess around too much with the green in comparison to contemporary artists, we can be reasonably sure that this particular shade of green was a likely shade of green for clothing in this period. Note that in the example image I pulled, there is a darker green in use (package on the other girl's back.) So we know the Master of Lucon was technically capable of altering the shade of green he used here on the girl, and he didn't. When I go looking for this color in fabric, I try to find that sweet spot between a grass green and a chartreuse, which is not a color that's easy to locate..

1) Dorr Mill's Medium Yellow Green is their closest option and is more of a yellow version. 2) No worsted wools for this one, so instead I once again offer up B Black & Son's $125 per yard Green Cashmere as an option. For someone with money to burn. 3) Fabrics-Store's Fresh Green is a more vibrant match, but looks to be currently sold out. None of their in-stock linen is close. 4) The Celedon silk matka is a close one, also on the yellow side.

From folio 204v
Red does not show up as the top layer garment of any of the women in the manuscript. It's does however appear on several hoods, the sleeves of the underdress in the green example above, and on men in large or small amounts. It shows up enough that it's a crucial part of of the manuscript, often adding a punch of color to a scene of muted tones (like the example above.) When I really got into trying to find the correct shade, I discovered that while it does have plenty of vibrancy, it's not a scarlet or crimson red. It's too orange and comparatively light for that.

1) Dorr Mill's Red Grapefruit has the right level of orange undertone. 2) Renaissance Fabric's Lightweight Red Worsted Flannel is a good match on the true red side. This swatch is darker than it really is. This is the fabric I used for my Red Wool Cote. 3) Fabrics-Store's High Risk Red has that great punchy quality that the red has in the manuscript, but may be a bit too bright. 4) The Red silk matka is an almost-match that's a bit more saturated.

There are many other colors in this manuscript that are unique, including grays, maroons, yellows and browns. They do, however, represent such a small percentage of the overall colors that I can't justify presenting them as major players in the manuscript. The colors above, however. are the glue that hold the Master of Lucon's color story together. 

I hope this inspires you to keep in mind now the colors you chose do or don't align with the colors of your period. As I've moved forward with my garb, keeping these colors, as well as the more typical palette seen in the Decameron, is an important consideration to getting the look of the perion correct. 

Now figure out what to use that Power Pink linen for.


  1. Excellent article. Any chance of you doing them for guys as well?

    1. My current research is focused on women's depictions, so I haven't looked too closely at the men in the images. I DO know that the color range is not that different on men in general. I have seen men in the images wearing each of these colors.