Culture Victoria

The last yarn

By Danielle Whitfield, Curator, Fashion and Textiles, NGV Posted Under Digitising and Conserving Fashion at the NGV

The last yarn

As mentioned in earlier blog posts, this digitisation project has supported the photography of key nineteenth-century works in the NGV’s Australian fashion and textiles collection for access through our online collection database. Giving the garments a life beyond the archive, the project acknowledged the appeal of recent exhibitions such as Australian Made (2010) and Fashion Detective (2014) which investigated aspects of historical dress.  Now, over fifty additional works have been catalogued, given new underpinnings, photographed and uploaded so that audiences elsewhere in the world can discover the local dressmakers, tailors and retailers who defined early Australian style.

For us, the project has also unearthed new discoveries; material evidence that changes the way we think about what we see and what we know. Clues gleaned from detailed object-based analysis of a garment’s construction­ – stitching, pattern pieces, finishing techniques, labelling and fabric choice – can verify authenticity or a wearer’s taste or social status. While suspicious alterations can indicate a garment’s restyling or refitting at a later date.  Likewise, areas of fading and discolouration can reveal the legacies of early dye technologies, while sites of soiling or repair can construct a narrative of use by previous owner/s. 

Yet at other times, broader questions can drive an investigation. This Wedding dress, c.1885, was exhibited in Fashion Detective and is one of four purple dresses from the NGV’s collection that was analysed in order to ascertain the chemistry of the dyes present in the fibres. More specifically, we wanted to know whether or not we could find evidence of Perkin’s purple.


Wedding dress, c.1885

undefinedUnknown, Australia 

Wedding dress c.1885

silk (satin), cotton, metal

Gifted in memory of Mrs Onnie Jean Nixon by her daughter Jocelyn Nixon and her family.

 2010.29 a-c

Colour in fashion changed radically in the nineteenth century, following the accidental discovery of aniline purple (later named mauveine) in 1856 by 18 year-old Scottish chemist, William Perkin (1838–1907), while he was searching for a cure for malaria. Applying a hypothesis developed by his mentor, Dr. August Hofmann, William began his synthesis of quinine using napthalidine a compound derived from naphtha, a solvent present in coal tar. Expecting a clear solution of colourless quinine, Perkin was surprised to see his experiment result in a reddish powder.  Intrigued, he repeated the experiment using a slightly different constituent of naphtha, aniline.  This resulting black product, when dried and dissolved in alcohol gave a mauve dye.

Perkin’s find was the catalyst for the emergence of a low-cost, artificial dyestuffs industry, which produced colours that rapidly replaced traditional dyes made from plants and insects. By 1859, English newspapers such as Punch were satirising the extent to which William Perkin’s vivid shade of purple, was dominating fashionable dress, likening it to a case of measles

But what exactly did this colour look like? Although a small swatch of silk dyed with a batch of the original dye is housed in the Imperial College chemistry archives, London, and an image of this can be seen on Wikipedia, records of mauveine are scant and identifying the colour by the naked eye is an impossible task.

As such, prior to the exhibition, fibre samples from each of the four dresses were analysed by Dr. Jeff Church of the CSIRO using thin layer chromatography and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy. While no mauveine was detected, we did discover that Dress, c. 1865 was dyed with methyl violet, a dye synthesized from an aniline base in 1861 by chemist Charles Lauth, four years after the invention of mauveine.


Dress, c.1865 dyed with methyl violet.


Unknown, England

Dress (c. 1865)

silk, cotton (lace)

The Schofield Collection.

Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the Government of Victoria, 1974



Imagine our surprise then, when nearly a year later we received an email from Dr.  Church stating that the final yarn had yielded a great surprise. Prolonging the investigation, the scientists had revisited Wedding dress c. 1885 which is constructed out of a dark purple fabric with differently-dyed warp and weft threads. When first analysed, the warp yarns revealed the presence of methyl violet and tannin mordant, and the weft yarns an unknown dye, most likely madder, bonded with a tin mordant. However once the mordant bond was broken, the free dye became visible as a bright shade of Perkins purple, the mordant having been used for colour effect only.

Information like this helps us to decode and understand an object within broader discourses. Our wedding dress speaks to a pivotal moment in fashion history and to the role that science played in the development of fashionable aesthetics in the nineteenth century. 

 As part of this project, Culture Victoria funded the digitisation of key works from the nineteenth century Australian Fashion and Textiles collection. You can view these records at NGV's collection site.


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