A Google search for “famous purple outfits” yields an expected headline of “Prince’s 16 Most Iconic Purple Outfits.” Yes, the late musician was one of purple’s most famed apostles, with the color dominating his mid-eighties wardrobe: an ostentatious blend of monarch, dandy and pirate.
“Purple Rain” is but one obvious example of a color potent with culture and history. An exhibit currently on view at Salve Regina University suggests as much, bearing witness to purple’s prominence. “Purple: Fashion and Fancy” runs through November 20 at the University’s Dorrance Hamilton Gallery, offering audiences a survey of fashion across three centuries.
Hats, evening dresses and even a mourning capelet are among the exhibit’s dozen pieces, made by designers both known and unknown. What the garments do share is a home: they normally reside in the Texas Fashion Collection at the University of North Texas.
“Purple” was the brainchild of Salve faculty Ernest Jolicoeur and Anthony F. Mangieri—professors of art and art history, respectively. While attending a conference, they met Annette Becker, director of the Texas Fashion Collection. Pedagogical chat ensued, and soon the germ of an exhibit did, too.
“[Jolicoeur and Mangieri] came up with the curatorial framing of focusing on the color purple,” Becker wrote in an email. “I’m so impressed with their work, especially as mannequin wrangling isn’t for the faint of heart!”
Becker would know quite a bit about mannequin-wrangling, as her day job at the Texas Fashion Collection requires managing an archive 20,000-items strong. Stanley and Edward Marcus of Neiman Marcus started the collection in the 1960s. Over time, it morphed into a storehouse of historically and aesthetically significant garments for educational use.
For this exhibit, Becker made a list of possibilities for Jolicoeur and Mangieri, who eventually narrowed it to the diversity of pieces now on display in Newport. There are canonical names, like a metallic cocktail dress from Oscar de la Renta or a Fendi fox fur. But there’s also the unsung and anonymous, such as a cheerfully folk-patterned wedding dress.
That purple would even exist in a folksy form is something of a recent development. In ancient Rome only the Emperor could wear purple. The prized and precious dye of Tyrian purple had to be culled from thousands of murex sea snails. You could milk the snails slowly and tediously. Or you could massacre the mollusks, crushing them to death en masse—the faster, more popular technique.
In 1856 purple lost its brutality. Chemist William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic purple dye, mauveine, in a flubbed attempt at synthesizing quinine, the prototypical antimalarial.
The serendipity of mauveine’s origins echo its longstanding and numerous symbolisms. As Jolicoeur notes, “It’s the last stop on the visible spectrum,” and thus a color that teeters on the mystical and the unknown.
Two purple fashions in the exhibit coincide with a time of particular upheaval. Coincidentally, they’re also the personal favorites of Becker and Mangieri.
“During WWII, with communication between the US and France disrupted and the Nazi occupation of Paris, American designers had to forge their own paths!” Becker noted.
She admires a 1947 sundress by Carolyn Schnurer. The flowing design embodies what Becker notes is a trifecta of mass-produced ready-wear: “easy-care fabrics,” powerful colors and an adjustable fit.
Mangieri prefers a 1943 skirt suit by designer Adrian. Wartime rationing led to a suit sans collar, lapels or buttons, but Adrian compensated for the lack of formalities with “prominent shoulders,” which Mangieri notes were made with Joan Crawford in mind. The results are painterly, the Mexican homespun cotton announcing color like any flat canvas.
Jolicoeur, a painter and keen appreciator of color, singled out an Ultrasuede pantsuit. Crafted by American designer Mollie Parnis, it’s also a standout in the exhibit’s catalogue, where its subdued hue is distinctly airy, suggesting a whiff of lavender.
“[It’s] grown on me since its arrival,” Jolicoeur said. “In some ways, it’s one of the less dazzling pieces in the show. Some might even see it as a monochromatic uniform. Yet…it’s soft and firm, embodying confidence and championing social change.”
Jolicoeur notes that this ‘70s design coincides with women’s increased presence in the workforce. Like the emperor’s clothes before it, Parnis’ pantsuit asserts a certain power. But unlike the emperor (who, if we remember the fairy tale, is usually naked) this modest workwear inaugurates something truer to purple’s current profundity—feelings fresh, uplifting, and a tinge mysterious.