A Noble Color

Many of us have heard the term “royal purple” but do you know the lineage of this noble dye? True royal purple, also known as Tyrian purple, was first discovered by the Minoans of Ancient Crete. However, it was in Phoenicia—whose name translates as purple—that the dye became famous.

 

In much of ancient Europe, purple dyes were rare, hard to make, and expensive, so only the rich and powerful could afford them. Wearing the color purple was an advertisement of social status and Roman laws restricted its use. Only the emperor and statues of the gods could wear trabea, togas dyed entirely in purple. In Byzantium, the color was similarly limited to the imperial family.

 

This highly coveted dye comes from a not-so-lofty source: the mucus secretions of predatory sea snails. It takes thousands of snails to dye even a small piece of cloth. Fortunately for us, there are cheaper—and easier to collect—natural and synthetic purple dyes, making the color of kings available to everyone. 

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