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color symbolism and capitalism


Peacocks and Penguins: The Political Economy of European Cloth and Colors Author(s): Jane Schneider Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 5, No. 3, Political Economy (Aug., 1978), pp. 413-447 Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 08/04/2013 11:58Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

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peacocks and penguins: the political economy of European cloth and colorsJANE SCHNEIDER-City University of New York Graduate Center

In southern Italy, as in much of southern Europe, adult women commonly wear black clothing. Black is the official color of mourning, which has led most observers to conclude that its wearers are communicating a funerary message (for example, Banfield 1958:59). A symbolic analysis of this message might focus on the opposition between bright colors and black, or on the correspondence of this opposition to life and death and to the asymmetrical structure of male-female relations in Mediterranean societies. Such an analysis would assume a close association between the color black and death-an association that Turner explores in his essay on color symbolism (Turner 1967:89). But, even if one could prove that the condition of death spontaneously elicits images that are clad in black-and there are important exceptions-one would still have to account for the many nonfunerary uses of black dress in European culture as a whole. Beside the attire of women on the Mediterranean littoral, there are the cassocks of the Catholic priesthood, the robes of judges, the smocks of school children, and the shirts of Italian fascist squadristi-all black garments. In addition, there are the black fashions of past centuries: the clothes of nobles, merchants, and others in the Venetian Republic, at the fabulous black court of Philip II in sixteenth-century Spain, of governors and burghers in Protestant circles north of the Alps, and so on. Dark robes or tunics were the preferred dress of radical heretics such as the Beguines and Hussites (Cohn 1957). Especially notable was the black of monastic orders, one of which, the Benedictines, acquired the epithet "black monks." From these examples it appears that black dress is to some degree associated with Christianity. Although not exclusively a religious symbol, it has, over several centuries, expressed for Christians a state of ritual purity. Thus Paul Fickeler's survey of cult colors in religious landscapes portrays a substantial overlap between Christian ceremonial and black

This paper relates color symbolism in European dress to the historical geography of textile manufacturing and dyeing, dating back to the Middle Ages. Its central concern is the widespread use of black, not only as a color of mourning, but also as a mode for communicating religious and political goals. Black clothing, it is argued, constituted both a practical and a symbolic means of resisting the luxury, polychrome fabrics that older and more developed civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean exported. Although beautiful and tempting, these textiles were instruments of hegemony, for they were produced under monopoly conditions furthered by the highly uneven world distribution of dyestuffs. In Europe they commanded basic resources-slaves and bullion-in exchange and thus created an unequal balance of trade. Black cloth, which contributed in many different ways first to arrest and then to reverse this imbalance, was a totally indigenous product that native craftsmen manufactured and brought to perfection using native raw materials. As such, it had something in common with contemporary symbols of national liberation, perhaps even when it called attention to death.

European cloth and colors


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because, in his view, Christians "suppressed the original white mourning color" throughout Europe. Fickeler also shows that, except for Moslem women in the Mediterranean area, black has a limited distribution in the great religions of the Orient, in which gold, yellow, or white, broken intermittently by red, blue, and green, are the dominant colors (Fickeler 1962:96-103). Yet, even though the use of black and the practice of Christianity coincided to a large extent, there was considerable variation in the social conditions of those who wore black. They were men and women, rich and poor, Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps the greatest contrast was between deeply ascetic and egalitarian critics of the established order, committed to a life of apostolic poverty, and kings or dukes and their courtiers, for whom black dress came in satins and velvets, lined with fur and embroidered with jewels or gold and silver thread. This picture would vary still further were it to include the witches and other underworld figures who frequently appeared in black. As an alternative to a symbolic analysis of black dress, I propose a historical reconstruction in which many of the symbol's manifestations are linked together, not through any structural similarities in the diverse situations they represent, but rather as sequential aspects of the development of textile manufacturing and exchange. My thesis is that black dress was a "key symbol" around which Europeans rallied at various points in their history, as they warded off, defended against, and ultimately reversed the hegemony of manufacturing centers, more developed than their own, that exported an array of brightly colored cloths. Black cloth, even of very high quality, was relatively easy to produce under the local conditions that prevailed in Europe from the eleventh century. But polychrome cloth was not, for its manufacture depended upon access to quality dyestuffs whose world distribution was, like the distribution of silks and spices, concentrated in the Orient and poorly represented in the West. Until the invention of coal tar dyes and other chemical substitutes in the nineteenth century, this highly uneven world distribution of reputable dyes, plus the role of financially precocious merchants and skilled craftsmen in connecting dyestuffs to cloth, led to monopoly conditions in textile industries with a dyeing and finishing capability. These industries flourished in the eastern Mediterranean but were underdeveloped in Europe. Where they thrived, they were the foundation for accumulations of capital and power, as beautifully dyed and finished cloth moved against basic resources such as food and slaves in long-distance trade. Disadvantaged by the resulting imbalances that generally favored "the East" and by the social dislocations that accompanied them, many Europeans were drawn to movements that brought into ritual and economic focus a color that was cheaply and effectively produced using indigenous raw materials. In other words, the use of black dress was an integral part of the evolution of a European civilization, separate from and independent of the great Mediterranean and Oriental civilizations to which it was heir. Not just a distinctive symbol, black also contributed in a substantive way to a reordering of trade relations, so that Europe could import primary products and export finished goods. I begin my account of this centuries-long transformation with the Middle Ages, when Byzantium and Moslem Spain were sources of polychrome cloth that Europeans acquired through the export of slaves. It was in this period that black first became widely used in Europe, being furthered above all by the monastic orders. I will attempt to show how their use of black dress nurtured the expansion of textile industries in Flanders-the major region of cloth manufacture in medieval Europe-and also why Flemish producers chose to concentrate on black (rather than, for instance, on red or purple) as their special color. Although Turner presents a forceful case for evaluating pigments according to their "magico-religious properties" rather than their abundance or scarcity, I nevertheless think that the dyestuffs' trade must be considered in evaluating this choice (Turner 1967:87-88).


american ethnologist

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Regarding the choice of black for mourning: if Fickeler is correct, funerary black replaced funerary white in the Middle Ages. I will suggest that attention be focused not so much upon the properties of the color, as on the meaning that death acquired in this period; for, like the early Christians, medieval Europeans came to see death as a radically egalitarian state in which riches were not only irrelevant, but also an obstacle to salvation. This corresponds rather closely to the nonfunerary contexts in which polychrome luxuries were deemed evil, and for which the use of black dress was considered appropriate. In other words, black evoked commitment to austerity and opposition to indulgence in funerary and nonfunerary situations alike. Because the medieval period was a turning point in the rise of a civilizat