White as the lightest of all colors lacks hue and that is why it is often called achromatic color. There are many associations of whiteness in nature, just like in our minds. White clouds, winter white and snow-white, ancient antique white and contemporary neon white ... These are just some of the associations that bind us to white. But what is the history of white in the context of fashion changes over the centuries? Color white is indeed filled with deep symbolic content, which can be associated with both - symbolism purity and negative aspects as well. Let's try to find out more about whiteness in this story!
In many cultures white symbolizes purity, innocence, and holiness. As for holiness, then white represents this aspect in many Western European cultures. For this reason Celtic druids wear white clothes. [4.] In Western culture, the white dress associates with purity and innocence. That is why in the western world, brides wear white as an ancient symbol of innocence and purity.
The negative symbolism of color white is more often associated with surrender and with cowardice, but it can also symbolize peace. "The use of white flag as a symbol of surrender dates back as far as the first century CE in Ancient China."[4.] The reason why the white color became a symbol of cowardice is rooted in Britain and the former British Empire where a white feather was symbolizing cowardice, because fighting cocks with white tail feathers were said to be poor fighters. [4.] Therefore, some pacifist organizations have adopted it as a symbol of peace. [4.]
However, quite contrary to the positive aspects of the color white, "in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian traditions white is linked to death and mourning (as it once was in Europe). For Buddhists, white is associated with the lotus flower - a symbol of light and purity - and with knowledge, or "illumination"."[4.]
Meanwhile, looking at the fashion history scene, white symbolism shows a rather complex story.
The White of Antiquity
For much of human history, white has been a symbol of purity.
In Ancient Egypt, the most widespread were white linen cloths, which for a long time did not lose their symbolic meaning and popularity. According to the canon, the rulers of the Ancient Egypt and the nobles in the paintings of the tombs were depicted exclusively in white costumes. Thus, there is a perception that the Egyptians are wearing only white costumes. However, it is again associated with the white color - a symbol of purity and brightness. [2.] It was worn by priestesses in ancient Egypt and Rome. It was again a symbol of purity. [9.] The color white in Ancient Egypt was connected with the goddess Isis. The priests and priestesses of Isis wore only white linen clothes, and white linen was used to wrap mummies.[5.]
In Ancient Greece, white clothing was considered a sign of sophistication. Also Greeks saw the world in terms of darkness and light, so white was a fundamental color. In Greece as well as in other ancient civilizations, color white was often associated with mother's milk. According to Greek mythology, the god Zeus once was nourished at the breast of the nymph Amalthea. [5.]
White also did not lose its role in Ancient Rome. While the fashionable color scale was dominated by bright tones, during the time of the Republic, women belonging to the patrician circles were wearing only white clothes. [2.]
Romans also wore a white toga as a symbol of citizenship. It was a plain white toga, also known as a toga virilis, was worn for ceremonial occasions by all citizens whose age was over of 14 - 18. [12.] Priestesses of the goddess Vesta were dressed in white linen clothing as they were protecting the sacred fire and the penates of Rome. White symbolized their purity, loyalty, and chastity.[5.] Actually the ancient Romans had two words for white - albus and candidus. Albus came from the word 'albino' (plain white). Candidus, therefore, meant - a brighter white. [12.] "A man who wanted public office in Rome wore a white toga brightened with chalk, called a toga candida, the origin of the word candidate. The Latin word candere meant to shine, to be bright."[12.]
The history of color white in the ancient world is also associated with dark facts, and they point to the beauty care habits of that time. "Considering the toxicity of lead, it’s horrifying just how much it was used, not just in artistic painting, but in face paints. The denizens of ancient Greece were fans of slathering white lead all over their faces and “dead white” was a term that could have been applied to the most fashionable men and women of society through the ages.' [ 9.]
Sacred Medieval White & Volatility Of Renaissance White
In the Middle Ages, the role of white was directly related to religious symbolism, making it more difficult to talk about its social meaning and the context of fashion. In fact its roots are in the imagery of the early Christian church that adopted the symbolism of antiquity. The ideals of Christianity were compatible with the Roman symbolism of white as the color of purity, sacrifice and virtue. White became the color worn by priests and it was worn by monks of the Cistercian Order, and, under Pope Pius V, a former monk of the Dominican Order, it became the official color worn by pope himself. [ 12.]
In Medieval and Renaissance art white was the symbolic color of the transfiguration. The Gospel of Saint Mark describes clothing of Jesus as "shining, exceeding white as snow". In his painting of the transfiguration at the Convent of Saint Mark in Florence, Fra Angelico emphasized the white garment by using a light gold background, placed in an almond-shaped halo. [6.]
The earliest mention of a white pigment that is not plain chalk appears in written records of the Italian artist Cennino Cennini in the 13th century. He used the term “Bianco di San Giovanni” to describe a white lime pigment made of calcium carbonate and calcium hydroxide. [ 9.]
During the early Renaissance fashion era, color white appears in a delicate shirts and its role is also highlighted by the imitation of the antique era as it is seen in the works of Sandro Botticelli.
It should be noted that until the 16th century, white was commonly worn by widows as a color of mourning. Usually the widows of the kings of France wore white clothes. A white tunic was also worn by many knights, along with a red cloak, which showed the knights were willing to give their blood for the king or Church.[12.]
White As Sign Cleanliness
Since the 16th century, white has played an important role in the decoration of the costume. In addition, white collars and cuffs became important accents in the business world. During the early 17th century merchants and officials wore dark costumes that were well highlighted by a white finish.
In the 17th century, the color white began to play its role at the level of social habits as well as the understanding of hygiene. "Clean hands and snow-white collars and cuffs were outward signs of people's cleanliness."[1.] It is rooted already in the 16th century when "people believed that water was harmful to the human body. [...] People did not wash themselves, and largely avoided contact with water. They rubbed themselves with dry towels and wore clean clothes; it was believed that wearing white shirts directly on the skin would absorb all sweat and dirt from the body. The more often the shirt was changed, the cleaner one was. " [1.] In this way, the 17th century fashion highlighted the undershirts whose details were visible at the ends of the sleeves and at the neckline. These details of white shirts "were an outer sign of cleanliness." [1.] Over the course of the century, the shirt became less noticeable, however its function was taken over by lace collars and cuffs.
White was also a fashionable color for both men and women in the 18th century. Men in the aristocracy and upper classes wore powdered white wigs and white stockings, and women wore elaborate embroidered white and pastel gowns. In a sense, the white color had become a sign of aristocracy.
The Color Of Empire Style & White Brides
The inspiration that was taken from the ancient world made the white color a fashion sign of the early 19th century. After the French Revolution it was even more austere white called blanc cassé which became the most fashionable color in women's costumes. Because of the rather revealing design of these dresses, the ladies wearing them were called les merveilleuses (the marvellous) by French men of that era. [12.]
White was the universal color of both men and women's underwear and of sheets in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was unthinkable to have sheets or underwear of any other color. The reason was simple; the manner of washing linen in boiling water caused colors to fade. When linen was worn out, it was collected and turned into high-quality paper. [3.] This image of the color white as color of underwear remained until the end of the 19th century.
The mid-19th century came with perhaps the greatest sensation in the history of white. Historically the first widely known white wedding gown was worn by Queen Victoria in 1840. The white lace wedding gown had a large impact on the color and fashion of wedding dresses in the Western world down to the present day.
The airy structure and romanticism of white dresses were also widely interpreted in symbolism and literature during the fin de siècle, becoming an iconic sign to this day.
References & Further Reading:
1. Lehnert G. Fashion: A Concise History. - Laurence King Publishing, 1999.
2. Parute E. Stila un modes enciklopēdija. - Rīga: Jumava, 2010.
3. Pastoureau M. Le petit livre des couleurs. - Editions du Panama, 2005.
4.Signs & Symbols. An Illustrated Guide To Their Origins And Meanings. /Project Editor: Kathryn Wilkinson. - London, New York, Munich, Melbourne, Delhi: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2008.
5.Varichon A. Couleurs - pigments et tentures dans les mains des peuples. - Le Seuil, 2005.
6. Zuffi S. Color in Art. - Abrams, 2012.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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