Sunday, December 13, 2015

Women's Dress Colors in the 1432 "Le Decameron"

I've been having some fun lately with color.

While looking over the images I've collected for my survey of early 15th Century French women's clothing, I was struck by how often the same colors came up. One explanation for this is that paint colors used in manuscripts during this period were a pretty well-established standard, even to the point that patrons dictated in their contracts what colors and even how much of each were to be used. But I'd like to think that the colors are representative of reality, at least in part, and that the colors used in the miniatures can reasonably be used to create a real-life color palette of the period for recreation.

I decided to start by grabbing a sampling of illuminations from Le Decameron (Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, 1432), taking them into Photoshop, and eye-dropping the dresses. I adjusted the colors a bit more to account for the dullness that comes from the scanning process, and came up with a five-color palette that captures the colors worn by women in Le Decameron fairly well:

Colors from Le Decameron (Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, 1432)

From there, I thought it would be fun to sort of define each of the colors, according to the variations in the manuscript. Then, armed with a range of acceptable colors, see if I could source fabric for each. For the most part, I wanted to find wool, since that's generally the best fabric across the board for this period, but I did look at B.Black & Son's Silk Matka and Fabric-Store's Linen for the colors as well.

HUGE DISCLAIMER: I'm not at all suggesting that anyone go right out and buy yards of any of these fabrics. I am only looking at their color to help you get an idea of what to look for. Always obtain a swatch of any fabric you are considering to evaluate its suitability for your project. Also, for the sake of copyright, the fabric swatches below were sourced directly from their respective seller links, do not belong to me, and are provided here for reference only. If the link is dead, it is likely because that fabric is no longer available.


The two primary pinks in the manuscript are a gray-pink and a deep pink with purple overtones, almost a fuchsia. Pink, in general is all over the manuscripts I've collected. And it makes a lot of sense to see it so much because pinks can easily result from subsequent dye baths of both madder and kermes, and could be over-dyed with 3rd or 4th baths of indigo to give it that purple tone. Cloth dyed with paler dye baths would have been sold for less, making it an accessible color to a wide range of classes.

Pink is a hard color to source in wool. Dorr Mill's Flamingo (1) is close, even if a bit on the "baby" pink side. In the earlier pages of the manuscript, the pink is very gray, in which case Mood's Italian Dusty Rose Coating (2) fits (see folio 132v for a great example). A closer color match can be found in silk with B. Black & Son's Rose Matka (3), which might have a bit too much peach (hard to gauge from the photo). Fabric-Store's Purple Wine (4) caps the fuchsia end of the range, but in reality is probably a bit too vibrant.

Having gone through all that, however, I have to admit that none of these options feel quite "spot on" to the predominant pink in the manuscript. It falls somewhere between #3 & #4.


The blues that show up throughout the manuscript fall either into the "deep royal" category, or something more on the light side of navy. Blue dye was created using either locally-grown woad or imported indigo from India. In the 13th century, blue became a more important cultural color, particularly in France where it was used as the heraldic color of the French royal family. Blue does not appear to carry any special symbolism in Le Decameron, but it does appear to be a favored color across all the manuscripts from this period that I have thus far collected.

Wm. Booth Draper's Mazerine Broadcloth (1) looks pretty spot on for the deepest shade used (see folio 211v), as does their Blue Worsted (2). Dorr Mill's Darkest Blue (3) provides a good match to the brighter royal blue, which is more commonly used through the manuscript. B. Black & Son's Cobalt Matka (4) and Navy Matka (5) are their closest silk matches to each shade, and Fabrics-Store's Royal Blue Linen (6) is a very close shade, though none of the blue linens in their line quite have the violet undertone that's present in the manuscript.


The red found in the manuscript is a scarlet, but it's almost more of a true red with brownish leanings. Dye-wise, the red smacks more of earthier madder than bloodier kermes. But, in some of the folios, it does feel deeper and richer, and in those instances was probably meant to suggest a genuine crimson, even if the artist's available pigments limited actually achieving that color in paint.

Wm. Booth's Red Wool Broadcloth (1) has just the right mix of brightness to brownness, as does Mood's more vibrant Brick Solid Suiting (2). However, I'm going to declare Renaissance Fabric's Scarlet Wool Flannel (3) as the winner on this one. A more vibrant alternative that's lacking the brown tone is B. Black & Son's Red Worsted Flannel (4). I wasn't able to locate a suitable silk, so instead I'll offer up Wm. Booth's Claret Colour'd Broadcloth as a maroon-tinted option that is only barely out of the range. The Redwood Linen (6) from Fabric-Store is a somewhat orangey match.


This one is a purple while at the same time almost a gray. It doesn't occur an awful lot in the manuscript, but it is clearly a separate and distinct color from the others. It has a sort of "muddy" vibe to it, like the color of water after you've cleaned a few colors off your brush. It's actually a really unexpected shade that I think adds a lot to the overall palette.

I was honestly surprised to have an easy time locating matches on this one. The closest match is Mood's Lavender Solid Suiting (1) with blue in the shadows that match the manuscript really well. A grayer alternative is their Pastel Purple Suiting (2). Dorr Mill's Crocus (3) is the other end of the range and as purple as you should go with it. I'm also intrigued by Mood's Lavender/Black/Off-White Solid Tweed (4) as a darker option. B. Black & Son's Periwinkle Matka (5) is their closest match, but very far to the purple side like #3, and Fabric-Store's Lavender is on the blue-gray end of the range. (Check out their Silver Lilac too- it's pretty close as well.)


Green is probably the least-used color on women in the manuscript (possibly tying with Lavender). It's a sort of fern green that almost wants to be mint but just doesn't qualify. Greens were produced a variety of ways in period, including the good old combining of blue from woad and some variety of yellow.

I had a really difficult time locating greens that had the right blueness to them. Dorr Mill's Medium Yellow Green (1) is a great "true green" option that lacks the blue undertone but is the right color otherwise. B.Black & Son's Green Cashmere (2) is spot on in color, but a bit too pale. Their Celedon Matka silk is a yellow-leaning near match. The Stone Green (4) linen from Fabric-Store just about hits the nail on the head, but would be better if it were a little darker.

Bonus: Orange

I want to give a final shout-out to the red-orange that appears in the manuscript. It's not a prominent color- it's only used on women five or six times, but it does appear and it is clearly different than the red.

The redness of the orange is captured pretty well in Mood's Mango Solid Double Face (1). Wm. Booth's Madder Broadcloth (2) is duller, which may actually make it the better match. B. Black & Son's Tangelo Matka (3) is their closest orange (though Curry Matka is similar), and Fabric-Store's Blood Orange (4) is right on if you aren't looking at the shadows in the painted drapery.

I hope you found this as interesting and fun as I did. For myself, I found it helpful to identify the colors I should seek out first when I'm looking to replenish my stash. I often tend to purchase colors that I like or find interesting, but I don't vet them against the colors in the visual record in the way I have above. Now I know that not every color is exactly correct if my aim is to look like the manuscript representations.

So, with this post, I leave you for a few weeks as I focus on celebrating the holiday season with my family. I will return to the blog and Facebook in January. Glad tidings of comfort and joy to you and yours, and I'll see you in the New Year!

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