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BBC Radio 4’s Torn takes a fresh look at fashion history

This documentary series explores the impact of fashion through the ages – from its role in slavery to driving at least one species to the brink of extinction.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

You know a history of fashion is good when it includes sentences such as, “Of course, this led to the total collapse of the mollusc population.” This particular line is delivered less than five minutes into the fourth episode of Torn, a BBC Radio 4 series airing daily over two weeks that explores the “mauve mania” of the Victorian era and how the introduction of new dyes changed our approach to wearing colour.

Kassia St Clair, author of The Secret Lives of Colour, is explaining how clothing production once relied on plant- and animal-based dyes, such as a shade highly prized in the Roman empire called imperial (or Tyrian) purple, which was made from a particular type of Mediterranean sea snail. The dye was extracted by cracking open the animal’s shell and extracting a couple of drops of liquid from one of its glands – and it took around 250,000 molluscs to produce a single ounce of dye. It became a symbol of power in the Roman era, becoming even more expensive as the sea snail almost died out and the industry collapsed.

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Thankfully for the sea snails, a bright-eyed, 18-year-old scientist named William Perkin was working on a cure for malaria using coal tar in 1856 when he stumbled across a reddish, dullish lump at the bottom of a test tube that, on further experimentation, worked as a vibrant purple dye. Perkin founded a dye company that introduced a whole range of colours that were not reliant on living organisms – finally democratising purple and other vibrant shades long associated with the upper classes.

The curator and cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford is a charismatic and grounding host in a human and environmentally conscious series that effortlessly skips through centuries, follows tangents, and always looks forward as well as back. Other episodes explore the colonial history of the cotton industry, how the discovery of viscose rayon (“fake silk”) impacted class dynamics, and the Indonesian origins of African wax prints.

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BBC Radio 4, weekdays till 2 September, 1.45pm

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars