From Coal Tar to Couture: The Discovery of Aniline Dyes and The Effect Upon Fashion

Around 1856 an 18-year-old British chemist named William Henry Perkin changed the world of fashion forever.  He had been performing experiments seeking to replace the natural anti-malarial drug quinine. Instead of the colorless powder he had expected, he found that oxidizing aniline, a coal tar derivative, produced a reddish powder containing something far more exciting: an intense purple. Fashion would never be the same!  This discovery led to the wide commercial availability of low cost, brightly colored fabrics that would be available to all. It also marked the beginning of a hugely profitable business.

Sir William Henry Perkin FRS became an entrepreneur who went on to discover the first commercial synthetic organic dye made from aniline – mauveine. Mauveine was a strong, deep purple that easily dyed silk textiles. This new synthetic dye was far cheaper and easier to produce than conventional purple dyes, e.g., Tyrian purple, which came from small mollusks called murex snails, and so quickly gained popularity. Perkins patented mauveine in Britain in August 1856 and established his factory near London. The success of the mauve dye led to further aniline dye research with an explosion of other aniline-based color dyes – factories began producing them throughout Europe. Perkins’ new synthetic aniline dyes were so successful that they soon outstripped their natural counterparts (vegetable, animal, and mineral based dyes and colorants) to become the most popular textile colorants in history. They provided a strong, vibrant range of colors and were incredibly lightfast. They were also very cheap and easy to produce, allowing manufacturers to mass produce the new aniline dyes to be sold throughout the world with a resulting huge impact on world fashion.

The emergence of synthetic aniline dyes fostered a momentous change in the textile industry. The ease of manufacture of textiles in a wide array of brilliant colors freed the fashion design world from reliance upon the customary shades of white, beige and brown that had been predominant for centuries. It was a revolution that opened-up a whole new market for bright, shiny, extravagant clothing that would no longer be exclusively for the rich.  The advent of aniline dyes drove a change in the social hierarchies that had prevailed throughout history.  Fashion-based class distinctions began to erode as low cost brightly colored textiles became available to ordinary people. Clothing could be bright and the colors vivid pushing fashion forward toward new vistas of personal expression.

In many ways, Perkin’s discovery of aniline dyes was the most important invention in the history of fashion and seminal in the history of the world. The use of aniline dyes for mass marketed textiles began the move away from the color-coded class structure that had been part of dress since the Middle Ages. Color in fashion would no longer be the province of the wealthy.

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