Steampunk: When Goths Discovered Brown. So the joke goes. But there’s no reason your Steampunk ensemble has to be restricted to the palette of a sepia photograph. Mid- and late Victorians were incredibly fond of colour. Rather than wearing brown and black all the time, western people in the 19th century wore shockingly bright colours. Some recent inventions in the textile field made vibrant colours the height of fashion.
Okay. I admit that I’m not really fair to good old brown. But I have been rather inundated with it throughout my life. I have brown hair and brown eyes. My skin always turned brown in the summer. I even learned how to ride on a brown (not bay, not chestnut, not buckskin) horse. The house I grew up in was full of brown paneling. I wore a lot of brown clothing as a child. Well… it was the 70s. When I started picking out my own clothes, I developed a distinct aversion to the colour brown.
I have always had a fondness for bright colours. Maybe something about all that day-glo and neon back in the 80s when I was in high school did something permanent to my brain. But I cannot stand to wear pastels and shades of tan. Matter of fact, one of the reasons I avoided 19th century reenacting for so many years was because I had the mistaken impression that you couldn’t wear anything more vibrant than robin’s egg blue.
HA! I say to you: HA!
The Victorians invented eye-bleeding colours. Literally invented them.
You see, in 1856, an 18-yr old Englishman named William Henry Perkin was attending the Royal College of Chemistry when his professor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, gave him a challenge. Von Hofmann published an hypothesis that one could produce a synthetic version of quinine — the costly, naturally-occurring malaria drug — through the manipulation of coal tar. Perkin failed to synthesize quinine. But when he cleaned his flask with alcohol, he noticed a bright purple substance. Further experiments proved this to be a durable dyestuff. Perkin left school and opened a factory to product his new chemical — aniline purple or Tyrian purple after the ancient dyestuff made from mollusks but since 1859 known as mauveine — and the synthetic dye industry was born. Other aniline dyes — notably fuchsine, safranine, and induline — followed.
Mauveine got a significant boost when prominent notables such as Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie (wife of Napoleon III) wore this shockingly bright purple colour in public. Soon European society was awash in brightly-coloured garments including some plaids that would shock even the most devoted lover of day-glo.
Coincidentally, aniline was also instrumental in the origins of anti-bacterial and antibiotic development in the 1930s and later it was used in chemotherapy. So Perkin did save the world from deadly disease after all.
So don’t pass up the prismatic. No need to cold-shoulder the colourful. Be bright. Be a peacock. Be like the real Victorians!
Ironically, sepia isn’t even a correct tone for photographs of the period typically covered by Steampunk. Sepia was achieved when cuttlefish ink was added to the photographic process to make photographs last longer. This trend began in the early 20th century and went out of use with the advent of Kodachrome in the 1930s. In other words, sepia isn’t Victorian at all!