Indigo-ing from Royalty to Rubes

Indigo has a colorful history—once used as currency, extracted from sea snails and plants, processed in stale urine, outlawed by the Holy Roman Empire and a source of misery for West African slaves on indigo plantations, including ones in Louisiana. Its use as a dye dates back more than 6,000 years, with the oldest known indigo textile originating in Peru.

Indigo is one of the richest colors in terms of saturation and, at one time, a color only the richest could afford. In 16th century England, sumptuary laws prohibited anyone but royalty from wearing this deep purple shade, which is where we get the term “royal purple” as an alternate name for indigo. Even without sumptuary laws forbidding it, almost no one other than royalty could have afforded to wear indigo clothing. At one point, indigo textiles literally cost their weight in gold.

Once reserved exclusively for the 1%, indigo-dyed clothing is now available to everyone thanks to a mistake made by 18-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin in 1856. While working on an anti-malaria drug, he accidentally created synthetic indigo. What was previously a hard-to-find, difficult-to-process natural dye became extremely affordable and accessible to the masses.

Denim is, without a doubt, the most common modern indigo textile, but it didn’t start out with the trademark deep blue hue it has now. When Jacob Davis created his first denim clothing in 1871, it was a sturdy brown fabric held together with rivets (priced at $3!). Not pretty to look at, but highly functional for the miners he created them for. They needed clothing that could handle consistent rugged use, and denim proved to be a huge hit. Davis teamed up with Levi Strauss (sound familiar?) to get a patent for the denim pants.

In 1890, Davis and Strauss began using indigo to dye the once-brown pants. The indigo dye created a more flexible fabric (the original denim pants were extremely stiff—we’re talking your-dry-cleaner-used-way-way-too-much-starch kind of texture) and maintained an attractive color even after many washes. This small change skyrocketed denim sales as interest expanded beyond miners and others in demanding fields.

In a letter to Strauss asking for his help paying for a patent for his jeans, Davis explained “the secret of them Pants is the Rivets that I put in those Pockets and I found the demand so large that I cannot make them fast enough.” More than 120 years later, denim jeans have maintained their popularity and remain a ubiquitous presence in American culture and in closets worldwide.

Davis and Strauss (and anyone who loves a good pair of jeans) owe a lot to William Henry Perkin. Although Davis made the pants rugged and durable with his rivet idea, it wasn’t until he began dyeing them with indigo that they became widely sought after. Without the discovery of synthetic indigo, it would have been inconceivable to dye the pants with natural indigo and expect to sell them to anyone but the richest of the rich. Perkin’s synthetic indigo not only made jeans an everyday wardrobe staple, but also saved a lot of sea snails (Seriously. It took nearly 12,000 sea snails to make one single gram of dye). Despite Davis’ opinion of his creation, “the secret of them Pants” is actually synthetic indigo.

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