That Eldritch Hue: Green, poison, passion, and Privilege

This week’s #ThreadTalk was inspired by work I’m doing on Queen of Fury, the sequel to Queen of None. It started out as Hwyfar’s story–she’s the daughter of King Leodegraunce, and sister to the Gweynevere–and it still is very much hers. But then Gawain showed up. And he’s very much changed.

That brought me down the route of Gawain and the Green Knight and the significance of green. That’s how we ended up here. There is so much on the subject, too. I wish I had more space, honestly, to do a whole book on it.

1 – Tonight’s #threadtalk is a horse of a different color: green to be exact.

We’ll talk emerald🟩, verdigris & olive🫒, too. Plus the connection between wallpaper, poison☠️ & privilege.

First: some color history back to our (literal) roots. (below, Redincote, 1786 – 1789)

The origin of the redingote lies in long men’s coats with a cutaway front, the riding coat. It is a striking example of the influence men’s fashion exerted on women’s fashion. A redingote for ladies consisted of an overcoat or gown, and a loose skirt in a contrasting colour, which enhanced the coat-like effect. Olive green and pale pink were a popular combination at the end of the 18th century. - rijksmuseum - c. 1786 - c. 1789

2 – If you peruse art history books, you’ll notice: finding vibrant green dresses before the 18th century is quite a challenge.

And there is a reason for that: green it a notoriously difficult color to capture affordably & reliably.

Unless you’re, you know…

Queen Elizabeth I with a gold gown, high lace collar, and a forest green sash draped across her shoulder and tied around her waist. She is wearing a red wig with a crown, carrying embroidered gloves, and has a feathered fan in one hand. Public domain. Unattributed artist.

3 – And even so, truly vibrant greens are even harder to find. This is for a number of reasons.

First & foremost, green dyes were often a combination of woad with other common dyes. Or natural dyes oxidized very easily. That meant fading, staining, and changing colors.

4 – For average folk, this was fine. We see lots of green homespun examples–Lincoln green, made of dyer’s greenweed, or Genista tinctoria, gave rise to the iconic color of Robin Hood’s Merry men.

But the king is NOT in green. Because fading? Staining? I think not, good sir.

"The King joins the hands of Robin Hood and Maid Marian", from Henry Gilbert's novel Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (source, source), originally published in 1912 (source). The book was illustrated by Walter Crane (source). -

5 – Before I start skewering the rich though, I did learn that you can make an absolutely stunning forest green dye with MUSHROOMS 🍄. And I love mushrooms.
So you can take a little pause before we get to the nastier stuff and enjoy this wholesome moment:

6 – Plants do make beautiful dyes. It’s just that without mordants (the chemicals we created to hold dyes to cloth) they don’t stay.

However, this incredible resource on Asian textiles is mind-blowing, & goes into detail on dozens of natural dye recipes.
Dyeing cotton with dadap, turmeric and lime at Nita Kloang - From the Asian Textiles page cited above. A bowl with cotton dyed with plant leaves.

7 – Maybe that’s why green stones, in particular, have always been so prized. This jadeite pendant features a seated lord, and would have been made by a Mayan artisan in the 7th or 8th century.

This green lingered, when all others faded. It must have seemed magical indeed.

A Maya jade worker carefully sculpted this jadeite pendant to feature a seated ruler in relief on its bright green and blue-grey surface. The greenest part of the stone, the most prized for its association with maize, water, and agricultural fertility, was used for the head and torso of the royal figure. Jadeite, known as yax tuun or “blue-green stone” in the hieroglyphic language, mined from sources along the Motagua River Valley in what is now Guatemala, was a prized luxury material across ancient Mesoamerica and was used for beads, pendants, plaques, and figures for regalia and votive purposes. For example, dozens of plaques and pendants of this type were found offered into the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza. - Public domain, the Met Museum

8 – This simple earring dates from Greece in the 3rd century BCE, but it’s an emerald. Our eyes are drawn to it. We can’t look away. Yes, the gold is lovely. But that pop of brightness? That springtime preserved?

That’s power. That’s magic, baby.

Earring, gold, hung with a blue glass bead and an emerald.

9 – And here is a familiar face, for those of you who follow along: Shah Jahan, here contemplating an emerald. Wearing muslin. Draped in pearls and fine silks.

Shah Jahan was one of the Mughal lords, and a collector of precious jewels. But he, too, knew the lure of green.

10 – By the early 18th century, mordants, like alum, come out on the scene. These are terribly caustic & require skilled hands (of workers). And there is a LOT of trial and error. And it’s $$$$.
You also see verdigris show up. Which is the oxidation green you get from copper.

And old school recipe for green silk, which includes a long list of strange instructions including "keep it there until you think it is yellow enough" and "let it be beaten and dried"

11 – Verdigris was also used earlier in some church vestments (which is a whole other topic I will cover at some point). There was a lot of back and forth about green and then purple and then red in priests robes.

But here’s a chasuble with green velvet from 15th C Italy.

Part of a collection that was purchased from Duveen Brothers, pre-eminent art dealers of the early 20th century, this chasuble is the oldest example from that collection. Despite its age and poor condition, the imagery is still very readable and provides a good document of the artistic style of the early 15th century. - Met Museum

12 – Anyway. We were talking about other caustic elements ruining society, weren’t we?

This dress is one of my favorites of all time & it’s made of Spitalfields damask silk that dates from the 1740s (designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite ), but sewn in 1775. It has matching shoes.

This dress is considerably less gaudy than continental and English clothing of the period. Yet, it is not lacking in sumptuousness. Rather, the green Spitalfields damask, attributed to Anna Maria Garthwaite about 1743-45, is richly displayed. The Costume Institute acquired this dress in 1994, knowing that it would be in the Museum's exhibition "John Singleton Copley's America." It has since appeared in our show "The Ceaseless Century." One could argue that the relative simplicity engenders more delight in the dress's inherent voluptuousness. Generations later, it was said that Boston ladies waited a year before breaking out their new Paris finery from Worth; perhaps the American sensibility in luxury goods is slow and deliberate. The outfit includes matching shoes. Met Museum, Public Domain.

13 – Anna Maria Garthwaite was at the forefront of Spitalfields silk naturalist designs, but no one knows how she learned her craft. Because woman.
She worked in watercolors, and these were then rendered in silk by Huguenots who worked tirelessly to provide silks to the rich.

Matching green damask silk shoes to the dress previously shown. They have a flared heel and wraps around their toes.

13 – The French Huguenots were escaping religious persecution & helped put Spitalfields silk on the map (they were also my ancestors–or those who didn't make it to Canada).

Anna Maria was also credited with this lovely *ladies* banyan. And y'all know I 💚 A BANYAN. My laws.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Woman’s banyan of green silk damask in a large pattern of leaves and flowers, lined with dark green silk sarsenet. The banyan is extensively pieced with no complete repeat of the damask pattern. It is T-shaped in cut, open at the front, with sleeves reaching to the forearm with a turn-back cuff. There is 1 pleat on either side of the front and 1 tapered box pleat at the centre back.

The piecing and signs of fomer folds and pleats suggest a previous garment. It was possibly then pieced into a man’s T-shaped night gown and reconfigured again for a woman with shaping at the torso and shoulders and addition of a linen lining above the waist.

14 – But again, let's not pretend being a dyer was fun. Even before mordants, it meant working vats full of lye, urine, & combos of vegetation day in and out (like onions slurries).
Don't worry, though. We've got a new trend in town courtesy of Sweden's own Carl Wilhelm Scheele.

A man sitting in a chair with a late 18th century hairdo (little rolls on the side of his wig) looking off-left, with a frilly shirt. He has a cleft chin and is holding a paper with some kind of scientific device on it.

15 – Scheele was a chemist & he helped discover oxygen. (Great pickup line.)

He pioneered research into tungsten, citric acid, lactic acid, hydrogen cynide & arsenic.

That last one is important. Apparently, it also makes a pretty pigment. Like this dress (c. 1860–1865).

“Emerald Green” dress colored with arsenic, English or French (c. 1860–1865) (Collection of Glennis Murphy, photograph Arnold Matthews) - Beautiful green dress with lace ruffled top  - BATA museum

16 – The world went Gaga for Scheele's green. Soon followed by Paris Green, it cropped up everywhere. I mean everywhere.

Candies, flowers, children's toys. Yeah, they kind of knew arsenic wasn't great. But like, couldn't be that bad, right? Not when you look this good!

By 1866 fashion had decreed that the fullness of the skirt hsould be gathered up somewhat at the back, and that an overskirt should be added to the full skirt. In 1868 the great expanse of the skirt narrowed considerably at the side, giving a much straighter silhouette in front; the fullness now moved to center back, where the primary shaping was provided by the bustle. - Met Museum. - Public Domain. Bright green gown with dots and fringe.

17 – Now, I primarily mean privileged white folk.
So many articles about poison dresses focus on the women wearing them.

The real tragedy is the workers–children, women, mostly–who died for decades before they did.

Mariah Pattie GETS it. Watch this.

18 – Did women wearing these dresses fall ill? Probably. But their servants, seamstresses, tailors, dyers, staff & their families did *way* earlier.

When did it really become a problem? As Pattie points out: when Paris green made it to wallpaper and rich people started dying.

A portrait of a young woman writing at a desk in a green room, an iconic "Paris green".

19 – This is where we go wrong with fashion so often. We're lulled into a sense of comfort by the beauty. Even in this story, we think — oh no! Pretty lady fainting in an eldritch dress!

But really? It's mothers dying of cancer & teens seeping green fluids from their mouths.

DescriptionGreen taffeta with minute woven lozenge figure and warp printed fern and flower design in black, lower edge of bodice and peplum trimmed with black silk bobbin lace; tulle ruffles on sleeves; skirt longer in back. Belonged to Mrs. David Nichols, grandmother of donor. - BMFA - Public Domain

20 – Rich white women were protected by layers & layers of their clothing & could afford to wear dresses only once or twice.

Same goes for this fellow and his snappy banyan. Remember: clothing is the ultimate luxury for most of human history.

Ward Nicholas Boylston in a brilliant green banyan and a cap, painted by John Singleton Copley, 1767. Public domain.

21 – And don't even get me started on radium. I mean, that's a whole other topic. Here's a video if you really want.

But I need to get going on dresses before I fall asleep. Must be all the poison!

22 – You can literally see the colors shifting through the decades, so let's begin with Arnolfini! This caused quite a stir (not just because of all the squirrels) — the cost of the dye alone (verdigris was probably involved) was shocking! Especially for a merchant couple.

This must be one of the most famous and intriguing paintings in the world. A richly dressed man and woman stand in a private room. They are probably Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini, an Italian merchant working in Bruges, and his wife.

Although the room is totally plausible – as if Jan van Eyck had simply removed a wall – close examination reveals inconsistencies: there’s not enough space for the chandelier, and no sign of a fireplace. Moreover, every object has been carefully chosen to proclaim the couple’s wealth and social status without risking criticism for aping the aristocracy.

The man’s hand is raised, apparently in greeting. On the back wall, a large convex mirror reflects two men coming into the room, one of whom also raises his arm. Immediately above it is Van Eyck’s signature. Could the man in mirror be van Eyck himself, with his servant, coming on a visit?

23 – Here we have an example from 16th C Italy with some damask gorgeousness. I am also about that trailing lacework. And her expression.

A 3/4 length portrait of a woman looking at the painter, in a green dress of silk damask with gold piping. She is carrying prayer beads and gloves, and has a high, lace collar and a crown over her braids.

24 – Coming into the early 19th century, I could not respect myself if I did not include more green velvet, let alone a velvet coat of such loveliness. It has some wear, but given the age it still has that glitter I love in garments like this. 10/10. Definitely Fae.

Coat. France, 1800-1810 Courtesy of LACMA - overcoat and matching waistcoat of deep green velvet. High collar, long tails. Mannequin has appropriately mussed hair.

25 – A nice compliment, I think, as a sort of broccoli and asparagus thing going on, is this spring green number, from around the same period. This green silk has some superb ruffling going on about the hem. I'm a sucker for ruffles. 1810-1815.

Evening dress, 1810-1815, silk, Rueil-Malmaison, châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, M.M.2014.7.1  - Empire waisted dress, spring green, with ruffles on the hem and ruching at the bustling. Princess cap sleeves.

26 – This example from 1839 lists the color as "light gray green" and I believe it. Between fading and the available dyes, it actually makes sense. It's a wedding gown, but the tailoring is super modern.
Gotta love the leg-of-mutton sleeves.

Dress worn by Elizabeth Richards at her marriage to John S. Parmelee in Newport, New Hampshire, January 19, 1839. Wedding dress of light gray green figured silk having all-over small dot and powder of two different stylized blossoms; bodice fitted and boned coming to V at waistline at center front, hooked down center back, bodice front trimmed with folds of self material and row of self covered small buttons, V neck, leg-of-mutton sleeves with top fullness caught down by lines of piping and self covered buttons, skirt full all the way around with fullness in pleats in front and on sides, in gathers center back; (b) matching short round shoulder cape; bodice lined with unbleached heavy cotton twill; skirt faced with cream colored cotton, and cape lined with cream colored cotton. - From BMFA Public Domain

27 – A super early House of Worth/Boburgh green dress from 1869. But this one screams arsenic to me. Not sure about you. I just saw a pair of booties when I was doing my research, and they were this precise hue.

Imagine ironing this. With your bare hands. All those pleats.

28 – This is taffeta, or changeable silk, and that means it catches the light just so. One of the reasons I love taffeta so much. Could be anywhere from the 1850s-1890s from the entry, but I'm guessing on the earlier side of that.

Still looks toxic, but has a lining so…?

Ribbed silk taffeta woven with light green and gold in opposing directions, collarless deep V neckline, long fitted sleeves, ruffled caps laced with tassled cords, sleeves lace with cord above wrists, fitted bodice ending in shallow center front point, pleated, ruffled and cord trimmed fabric radiates from center bodice point to shoulders, full gathered skirt trimmed with two vertical rows of self fabric bows down center front, piped seams, full glazed linen lining, (minor spots) excellent.  Augusta Auctions.

29 – Another vegetal gown with details galore — this one may be too extra even for this insufferable Gemini. Is it the fringe that take it over the top for me? I just feel like this belongs in a circus rather than a ball. It's American (feels appropriate), from 1868.

Imagine a big top circus tent in lime green, with gold piping, and covered in fringe. That's pretty much it! The Met Museum - Pubic Domain

30 – And at last, but far from least: THE GREEN DRESS. FULL STOP.

I mean, I once wrote a love letter to it. It was owned by a countess. I'm not sure it's real, even. The way the light hits the fabric?

You can read the whole story here:

31 – A few videos before the sources tonight! If you like watching dye vat videos like I do, check these out. First, all about Ph and color shifting:

32 – This whole series is delightful, but I love the idea of making dyes from reeds.

33 – Okay, on to our sources. Lots of good reading. Y'all, there is so much about green, I barely even got going tonight. I didn't even get to talk about the Statue of Liberty.

34 – More sources:

35 – And finally:

36 – So that concludes my first color-specific #threadtalk. Thanks for joining.

If you feel a little ill, just don't lick the wallpaper.

But seriously. It's okay to live in that weird place between ick & awe. It's what makes us human.

Question beauty. But notice it, too.

The Connecticut portraits Earl painted after returning from a seven-year stay in England are his greatest works as they combined his natural talents with the lessons he had gleaned from English art of the period. He rendered most of this portrait of Esther Boardman (1762–1851) in deep shades of green and brown to highlight his sitter’s striking face. Her alert gaze suggests intelligence, and her coiffure and wraparound dress, or levite, reveal her to be at the height of fashion, as was her brother, Elijah (whose portrait is also in the Museum's collection; 1979.395). The background shows the town of New Milford, which the Boardman family had been instrumental in settling. - Met Museum, public domain

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on June 2, 2021.

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