What Colours To Use?

The mental images we have of seventeenth century dress are invariably of a dashing cavalier, wearing extravagant clothing and an ostentatious feather in a broad-brimmed hat; or a dour Puritan dressed in black and white. A heavily stylised, but very enduring set of images created by the Victorians. But what was the reality?

Some clothing from the time still exists, although this will, by the very nature of things, have belonged to rich owners. It has been suggested too, that due to interest in the civil wars, that these surviving garments have been fancydress-ified to achieve the romantic nature of dashing cavaliers and their ladies.

One example of surviving clothing items  is a royalist officer's sash in the Victoria and Albert museum which has intricate silver/white embroidery.


A quick trawl around the National Gallery throws up a number of useful paintings. There is a gallery of Van Dyck's, showing portraits of Charles’s inner circle: the colours on display clearly shout 'wealth' so are very unlikely to have been worn by the rank and file. Van Dyck's portrait of the two Stuart brothers stands out as the archetypal dashing cavalier  trope.



So what colour cloth was used to make clothing for the common man? Fortunately we can draw on the research done by the many re-enactors of the period. Google will provide a number of suitable sites, two of the best that I've found are:

Rosalie Gilbert's site

Nicole Kipar's site

Paintings were generally of the well to do rather than common folk, so period images are skewed towards the richer social classes. I have read that many of the Dutch paintings of the time can be considered fairly representative of dress in the British Isles, plus we can also consider the 'sadd colours' used by the pilgrims to the Americas. These colours were deliberately subdued, and consisted of natural earthy country colours. Think traditional tweed cloth colours: so lots of greys, browns, greens, tawny oranges, earthy yellows (as opposed to bright lemony yellows) as well as russet red, madder red, heather purple.

Dyes were plant based so will probably have faded fairly quickly, although textile researchers have found natural ways of fixing madder red using urine.

'Woman and five children' by the Le Nain brothers (1642) shows these subdued countryside colours with madder red and dark blue.


Another useful painting is Velázquez's "Phillip IV hunting boar" (1632-7), whilst Spanish the colours of the servants and retinue gives a good feel for the effect I aim to achieve. Lots of browns, greys, greens so again earthy colours, with a smattering of madder red, blues and black.




Looking at my ECW paint palette there are lots of earthy named colours from Foundry such as granite, moss, quagmire, and peaty brown, which have been supplemented by a number of WWII  colours such as British khaki, Russian brown. Of course madder red, and a number of dark blues have joined the colour range.

Black is problematic, I tend to use 'neat' black for commanders/gentry, but weathered black (RailMatch) for the rare use of black for the hoi polloi.

I've also become a fan of Foundry blackened barrel for armour, and buff coats look particularly lived in once washed in Citadel Agrax Earthshade.


Scot's troops were invariably clothed in Hodden Grey - which isn't a specific shade of grey. Hodden grey was unbleached woollen cloth. The hardy sheep breeds bred had brown or grey white fleece, which gave variations in colour from the brown of Jacobs sheep through to light grey. My Scots soldiers are either Foundry arctic grey or granite, toned down with Citadel Nuln Oil.

For the total obsessive there are a number of volumes in the series  "Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England" which go in to very great detail about cloth types and colours.

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