the power of mauve


Cooked up in a laboratory by a scientist who thought, like that other earnest young scientist Dr. Frankenstein, that he was beating back death, mauve is the first artificial color. And like Frankenstein’s creation, mauve is vital but unnatural, a little monstrous. Even pestilential: “The Mauve Measles,” quipped Punch, are “spreading to so serious an extent that it is high time to consider by what means [they] may be checked.” Everyone is wearing it. And since skirts are enormous, and worn with crinolines, not to mention the unmentionables, mauve unfolds by the yard (or the meter) out of dye-works across Europe. It is followed in quick succession by other synthetic colors, also derived from coal tar: aniline yellow, aldehyde green, bleu de Paris. An entire industry foams up out of furbelows, demonstrating the power of both science and the female consumer. As Simon Garfield points out in his book Mauve (to which this essay is heavily indebted), by launching industrial chemistry, mauve will change the fate, not just of fashion, but of science, medicine, art, and war. It will also make the chemist, William Perkin, a very rich man.

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