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Friday, December 16, 2016

The Meaning of Renaissance and Medieval Clothing Colors

This post is designed to meet the needs of people looking for the symbolic meanings of 
Medieval and Renaissance clothing colors. It also describes the colors worn by certain 
members of society. 

The meaning of colors is not a simple and exact body of knowledge. Even during the 
Renaissance and Medieval periods, the meanings of colors were debated (more about 
this below the list). So, consider yourself forewarned about the vagaries of color symbolism 
in clothing. The list below, while not comprehensive, does provide ideas from secondary
 sources about what different colors represented and how they were used.

  • Reds - Renaissance
    • High social status, royalty, gentlemen, men of justice. (1) 
    • Worn by judges and similar persons (Scotland, the Holy Roman Empire, England’s Court of Common Pleas, occasionally by peers in English Parliament); royal magistrates, king’s chancellor (France); high government posts (Venice and Florence). (2) 
    • Cosmopolitan man with access to international trading centers. (3) 
    • Power and prestige. (4) 
    • In the Church, red was a symbol of authority, Pentecostal fire, the blood of Christ, martyrdom, crucifixion, Christian charity. Also, could symbolize the satanic and color of hellfire. (5) 
    • At the universities of Padua and Bologna, red was symbolic of medicine. (6) 
  • Reds - Medieval
    • ’A lover wears vermilion, like blood’ (later Middle Ages). (7)  
    • A sign of otherworldly power in European legends and folktales. Also, protection: red thread to ward off witches, red coral necklaces to guard against illness. (8)  
    • Sometimes the color of the Virgin Mary’s robes. (5)
    • The color of kings, identified with kingly virtues of valor and success in war. Also, fire. (9)  
    • A rich man. (10) 
  • Oranges - Renaissance
    • The peasants and middle ranked persons imitated upper class reds by dyeing their Renaissance clothes with cheaper orange-red and russet dyes. (11)  
  • Oranges - Medieval - nothing currently noted.
  • Yellows - Renaissance
    • In almost all Italian cities, a prostitute was required to wear yellow. (6)
    • In Venice, Jews were required to sew a yellow circle onto clothing. (6)
  • Yellows - Medieval
    • In later Middle Ages, a harmonious color expressing the balance between the red of justice and the white of compassion. (12)  
    • Late 1300s in Venice, a prostitute is known by her yellow dress. (13) 
  • Greens - Renaissance
    • Youth, especially in May. (6) 
    • In the secular sphere, chastity. (14)  
    • Love and joy. (4)
  • Greens - Medieval – nothing currently noted.
  • Blues - Renaissance
    • Light blue represented a young marriageable woman. (6)
    • In England, blue was the traditional color of servitude. Servants or members of a City company were to wear bright blue or gray Renaissance clothing. (15)  
    • Indigo or deep blue means chastity in the sacred sphere. (14) 
    • “. . . turquoise was a sure sign of jealousy . . .” (4)
  • Blues - Medieval
    • In the late Middle Ages, blue replaced royal purple in the mantle of the Virgin Mary and robes and heraldry (especially in France). (16)  
    • A lover wears blue for fidelity (late Middle Ages). (7)
    • By the 1300s, peasants owned blue Medieval clothing due to woad dye being readily available. (17) 
    • Early Middle Ages, blue was associated with darkness, evil. Later blue was associated with light. (18) 
  • Purples - Renaissance and Medieval
    • During the Renaissance, the Medici family in Florence, Italy wore purple. (6)
    • Since Antiquity, the color of kings and emperors, but mostly nonexistent in Renaissance and Medieval era due to near extinction of the snail used to make imperial purple. Imperial purple disappeared in 1453. (9) 
  • Browns - Renaissance
    • Modest and religious dress. (19)  
    • Beige was the color of poverty. (20) 
    • In England, dull browns were worn by lower classes. (15)
  • Browns - Medieval - nothing currently noted.
  • Grays - Renaissance
    • Modest and religious dress. (17) 
    • The color of poverty. (20) 
    • Female slaves in 1400s Florence were constrained to wear course woolens and no bright colors. (21) 
    • In England, servants or members of a City company were to wear bright blue or gray. Grays for the lower classes. (15) 
  • Grays - Medieval
    • Color of peasant clothing (eighth century, by order of Charlemagne). (21)
  • Blacks - Renaissance
    • Seriousness. (22)  
    • Mourning. (6)
    • Color of clothing for nobility and wealthy, representing refinement and distinction. (23)  
    • Worn by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgandy after 1419 as a symbol to the French that he did not forget the death of his father. “His black is at once dangerous, retributive . . .” (24)


      Painting of Philip the Good, 
      Duke of Burgundy 
      by Rogier van der Weyden, 
      from a dedication page of the 
      Chroniques de Hainault, 1400-1464. [
      Public domain], via Wikimedia.(25) 


    • Worn by king’s ministers as a sign of their selves being submitted to the will of the king. Also, symbolizes defeat, humiliation and humility. (26) 
    • In the 1400s, black began to suggest smartness, importance, sophistication, great dignity and state. Also, sad, melancholy, a humble color worn by mourners and monks. An expensive color to produce indicating social distinction and thus not worn by the lower classes. (26)
    • In the 1400s, merchants regularly wear black. (27) 
    • Traditional color of Venice, and attributed to piety and virtue. Piety, to a Venetian, was that which increased the empire. (28)  
    • A high fashion color in the mid-1500s. (29) 
    • A Venetian senator wore black. (13)
    • In Genoa, Italy, the Doge and aristocracy wore black. (6)
    • In England, lower class women wore primarily black. (15) 
  • Blacks - Medieval
    • Black worn by a melancholy lover yearning with love. (7) 
    • Color of peasant clothing (eighth century, by order of Charlemagne). Note that the quality of black may not be the same as the black referenced above for the Renaissance period, thus less expensive and accessible to peasants. (21) 
    • According to Pope Innocent III about 1200, black is color of penance and mourning, used for Advent and Lent. (30) 
    • The color of mourning in Brittany. (6)
  • Whites - Renaissance
    • White is purity for women and chastity for men. (6)
    • At the universities of Padua and Bologna, white was symbolic of the humanities. (6)
  • Whites - Medieval
    • A lover wears white for purity (later Middle Ages). (7)
    • According to Pope Innocent III about 1200, white is color of innocence and purity, and was used on the feasts of the Virgin. (30)
    • Compassion (later Middle Ages). (32)  
    • In France, white was the color of mourning. (33) 

Why Color Symbols are not Always in Agreement


Color symbolism during the Renaissance and Medieval periods has much in common with color
symbolism today. Consider, for example, the current meanings of colors. In present-day U.S.
culture, black is usually associated with mourning, unless it is in the form of a little, black cocktail
dress in which case it signifies sophistication and elegance. White means purity in the form of a
wedding dress, unless you are in China or Japan where it means mourning. Blue is for feeling
sad unless you win a blue first prize ribbon. Green is for youth and it also means ‘go’ at a
stoplight. (34) Stop at red and yet on Valentine’s Day send your loved one a red heart. (35)

In a similar manner, the symbolic meanings of color during the Renaissance and Medieval
periods differed over time, and depended on local culture and geographic area. As John
Gage points out in his book Color and Meaning, colour-perceptions are unstable, making it
difficult to confidently name colour-meanings and preferences in cultures. (36)

The primary problem for students of the Renaissance and Medieval era is a lack of universally
agreed-upon symbols. Not only was there more than one system of color symbols in place, but
the different systems contradicted each other. For instance, “The regal purple of Christ’s robe
may be the same as the scarlet of sin.”(37) Or another example, in the 1500s, writers in
Venice, Italy “. . . began to compare the various opinions and to find that they had very little in
common. In a series of dialogues on love, where, of course, the expressive force of colors
was seen to play a vital role, Mario Equicola in 1525 admitted the dangers of talking of colors
at all, because of the differences in ancient and modern terms and because different authorities
gave different equivalents for the colours of the elements or the planets; worse, ‘the meanings of
colours are somewhat different among the Italians, the Spanish and the French’. . . An assortment
of colours according to their meaning, said Morato, might even have a very disagreeable
aesthetic effect.”(38)

Nevertheless, it is possible to see that some colors were considered more valuable and had more
significant meanings than others. Often these were the colors with high economic value, like red
and purple. Since, the economic values tended to be the same for much of Europe, general
conclusions can be drawn. However, if historical accuracy for clothing colors is important, then
focusing a particular region and time period is recommended. 

Source is renaissanceclothing.blogspot.com
All sources the author used are cited on the blog.
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