Dying Dyes: What You See Isn’t Always What Was

Fugitive Dyes

Here’s the word of the day: Fugitive. No, not a criminal on the run, but fugitive dyes. They’re shifty like crooks, escape their bounds, bleed, run, and time can rob them of their colors. They can be hiding anywhere: in your closets or the collections of even the most secure museums.

Fugitive dyes are unstable. Made from pigments that are not light or color fast, they can fade even if they are well taken care of. One of the most famous examples is this black mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria on the day of her accession to the throne:

Queen Victoria’s Privy Council Dress, circa 1837

That’s a black dress?!
Well, not anymore, but it was.

Originally, this dress was a deep, shimmering black, but the fugitive dye has aged poorly. Black dyes have been historically notorious for fading, usually to this rusty brown. Some black dyes also fade to blue or even purple, depending on the dye used. These changes can be tracked using chromatography, the science of pigments and coloration. You can actually watch the changes at home if you cut a strip of coffee filter paper and make a fat dot at the bottom of the strip with a washable black marker. Put about 1/2 inch of water in the bottom of a glass and dip the end of the coffee filter with the dot into the water. As the paper soaks up the water, it will travel up the fibers through the marker spot, carrying pigment particles with it. Depending on the marker, the hazy streak that forms above the dot will be orange, blue, or purple.


Click here to check out more detail instructions on how to do your own chromatography experiment at home (the kids love to make butterflies with it).

Black isn’t the only fugitive dye. Many natural or early chemical dyes are prone to color changes and fading. Another excellent example of a non-black fugitive dye is in this beautiful 1860s silk gown (which recently sold on eBay):

Silk Dress, circa 1860-70

Buttonhole Detail on 1860s Silk Dress

The bright violet buttonholes look out of place on this sienna-brown dress, but they give a big clue to the original color: a gorgeous, soft lavender. Indeed, this rustic gown was once a flashy purple. There are a few spots of original color visible in the folds of the skirt, as well as vestiges of it along the hem. The most startling remains of the color can be found in the armpits, which, I will admit, upon first viewing appeared to be bleached. But as the seller pointed out and examination of the photos confirmed, the light purple “stains” are actually well-preserved patches of the otherwise degraded dye!

Area of Preserved Fugitive Dye on 1860s Silk Dress

Lavender, like black, is a color known to be especially prone to discoloration, though almost any color can be achieved with fugitive dyes. Most fugitive fabric dyes fade to differing shades of tan, especially natural dyes, but fugitive dyes are not limited to very old garments. Many modern handmade rugs and vintage garments (like this 1940s cotton tablecloth) are affected. The effects of fugitive color are not limited to dyes and fabrics, but are exceptionally common in paintings. Artists love to experiment with pigments and even common colors, such as indigo and red lake are prone to fading. One of the best examples is this painting by Robert Campin:

“Virgin and Child before a Firescreen” by Robert Campin, circa 1425-30

 Though her flowing robe appears to be a light blue-tinted white, the fabric was originally intended to be a rich purple. It is common practice for painters to layer washes of pigment to build deep, dimensional colors. In this painting, the underlying wash of red lake has faded, leaving behind only the consecutive layers used for shadowing. The other red pigments in the painting are made of different (considered then to be lower-quality) pigments that have, ironically, remained colorfast through the centuries.

Modern artists may opt to use fugitive colors’ transitory properties to their advantage, creating works of art that are meant to fade and change. However, if the piece was meant to last, fugitive dyes are a major challenge. There are many factors (chemical reactions, water, etc.) that can cause dyes to change color, but light is the most common. UV radiation is especially harmful, but even incandescent and florescent lighting can wreck havoc on unstable colors. Humidity-controlled darkness is the safest place to store most pieces.

For more information about and examples of fugitive dyes, check out these articles:

“The Fugitive Color” on Artist Daily

“The Fast and the Fugitive” on Grackle & Son

“A Safflower Frock Coat” on Reconstructing History

“Collecting Historical Tablecloths” on The Vintage Table

“c. 1910 Silk Dress” on Adventures of a Costumer

“The Weeping Dress” by Martha L. McDonald