“I took the liberty a few days ago of asking your black velvet bonnet to lend me its cawl, which it very readily did, and by which I have been enabled to give a considerable improvement of dignity to cap, which was before too nidgetty to please me. I shall wear it on Thursday, but I hope you will not be offended with me for following your advice as to its ornaments only in part. I still venture to retain the narrow silver round it, put twice round without any bow, and instead of the black military feather shall put in the coquelicot one as being smarter, and besides coquelicot is to be all the fashion this winter. After the ball I shall probably make it entirely black.”
Jane Austen to her Sister Cassandra
December 18, 1799
Colours are always integral to fashion and the names given to the new shades of the season as imaginative as they are confusing. Where trend gurus of 2006 push aubergine, petrol, raspberry, mustard, and moss on us; their counterparts of two centuries ago were not slow in urging its female readership to wear coquelicot, canary, pomona, jonquil or puce. But what did the colours really look like?
While ivory, rose, peach and lavender are quite easy to figure out, others are more obscure. Many colours were named after plants; roses being rosy red and lavender a delicate pale greyish purple. Slate, a dark grey reminiscent of paving stones, was popular for riding and walking dresses, while light purples, such as violet or lilac, adorned many a modest maiden. In Jane Austen’s time dyes were expensive, pigments made of natural substances and the resulting hues rather muted compared to our modern artificial dyes, hence even a bright yellow would not be as bright as we would imagine. Few pigments were colourfast; many faded in the sunlight or ran in the wash.
Yellow, green, rose, blue, pale purples and the all-dominating white were the most popular colours of the era. Yellow in particular was very fashionable and the different shades had interesting names such as Canary (bright, intense yellow), Jonquil (after a small wild daffodil, hence a pure yellow), the delicate Primrose, named after the popular English spring flower, and the deeper and richer Evening Primrose. It’s suitable to here also mention the yellowish shades of Straw, the golden beige hue of ripening corn, and Drab, a dull yellow brown as dreary as it sounds!
It should perhaps be noted that Blond is not a colour but a type of lace made with satin stitch on a mesh background. The lace was dominantly white or off-white, sometimes black and only rarely dyed in a fashionable colour. Lace was extremely expensive and, since rarely worn out with a dress, would probably do duty on several gowns. A neutral colour would certainly be easier to incorporate in the new design than one dyed a bright red!
Among the greens no colour is more Regency than Pomona Green. This is the deep and rich apple green shade that got its name from the goddess of the apple orchard. When comparing it to a colour palette one notices the good helping of yellow in it. Napoleon was partial to it as was the Swedish Crown Prince Bernadotte, who’s suite of rooms all in Pomona green are still on view at Castle Rosendal. This colour has sometimes erroneously been equated with sea green, creating confusion in the mind of the reader, however, Ackermann, in the descriptive text of a Morning Dress from 1825, equates Pomona with apple green, thus settling our confusion. Since the pigment most often used to achieve this colour had an arsenic base it was quite dangerous to use in excess.
We cannot end this discussion without mentioning Puce, the oddest colour of them all. It might help to know that the word puce is French for flea, a small insect our ancestors were all too familiar with. Yes, the colour is a brownish-purple or a purplish-pink, the colour of the blood-sucking flea; coagulating blood in other words. It may seem astonishing to the modern reader that one of the most popular colours in 1805 was puce!
The next time you hear the words Pomona, Jonquil or Puce you know exactly what colours the writer was talking about.
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Yvonne Forsling is a culitvator of exoctic Hibiscus and Regency Enthusiast. Visit her site, Yvonne’Space for a look into her passions and talents. Further discussion of Regency colour, as well as many other period plates can be found in the Regency Section of her website.