Dye-ing for colors, fashion

Emily Rasinski

University museum to show relationship between fashion, chemistry and history

Anne Bissonnette, curator of the Kent State University Museum, stands in front of a display she created for her exhibit entitled “The Right Chemistry: Colors in Fashion, 1704-1918.”

Credit: Andrew popik

Chemist William Perkin was never a slave to fashion. But he did have a huge effect on it: He discovered the color purple.

That’s just one of the many facts in the Kent State University Museum’s new exhibit that proves how fashion and chemistry are related. The exhibit, which opened Dec. 16, is entitled “The Right Chemistry: Colors in Fashion, 1704-1918” and demonstrates the unique relationship between fashion and chemistry.

“The different trends in color coincided with the different discoveries in chemistry,” said Anne Bissonnette, curator of the museum and creator of the exhibit, which is located in the Higbee Gallery of the museum in Rockwell Hall.

Bissonnette said the changes in chemistry in the late 18th and 19th centuries can be seen in the usage of different colors in fashion.

“You can’t do art without materials, and art requires pigments,” she said.

One of Bissonnette’s favorite examples is Perkin’s 1856 discovery of purple.

“He was looking for a medicine when he came across a purple sludge,” Bissonnette said. “He created a dye he was able to mass produce, which started a craze. It was a color you could never get before.”

The sign adjacent to the purple display further explained that Perkin began to call the color “mauve,” giving the color a French connection and forever linking it to the world of fashion.

Other colors on display include beige, yellow, white, blue, red and green. For each color, about five mannequins stationed on islands throughout the room display garments showing different ways each color was produced.

Each display has a sign explaining the history of the garments, colors and fabrics.

Although the exhibit offers a brief history on the garments and fabrics, its main focus is the developments of color.

Paula Dancie, part-time instructor in the School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, agrees with Bissonnette on the importance of color in fashion.

“Part of fashion is color. If it isn’t color, it’s black and white,” she said.

Dancie said two of the classes she teaches, Fashion Fabrics and Fashion Visuals, begin to explore the importance of color in the fashion design.

“In Fashion Fabrics, you learn about the application of color and fabric,” she said. “And Fashion Visuals touches on color theory.”

Bissonnette said her goal is to put fashion in a historical context, not just display pretty clothes. She said she hopes this will attract a broader audience who will learn to appreciate fashion’s historical significance.

Susan Laubach, museum guide and volunteer, is fascinated with this history.

“It almost tells the whole history of Europe in the 17 and 1800s,” she said. “It’s fascinating the way it’s all connected.”

The exhibit will run until Nov. 27.

The museum is free to students and to the public on Sundays. General admission for the public is $5 Wednesday through Saturday.

Contact fine and professional arts reporter Emily Rasinski at [email protected].