The World’s First Fashion Capital?

Which city deserves to be called the “Fashion Capital of the World?” These days, experts might point to places such as London, Milan, New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Rome. But what about in ancient times? Where was the very first “Fashion Capital of the World?” And how did a mysterious color known as Tyrian purple bring about the birth of the fashion industry?

The 1200 BC Mystery?

Around 1200 BC, a mysterious event occurred in the Mediterranean region. It left the Egyptians in a weakened condition and wrecked the Hittite Empire. Traditionally, this event is associated with an invasion by the strange Sea Peoples although research done by Mike Baillie suggests that a comet shower may be the more likely culprit (see: Did a Comet Cause the Black Death?).

Regardless, the event created a power vacuum which was subsequently filled by Phoenicia. Phoenicia was a group of loosely-connected city-states situated throughout large parts of northern Africa, western Asia, and southern Europe. During its heyday, it was widely known for its trading prowess, a reputation which lasted until it was conquered by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.

Tyrian Purple & the Birth of Fashion?

According to Keith Roberts’ book, The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets, around 1200 BC, the Phoenicians discovered that Murex sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean contained a mucous secretion. Through a process that has been largely lost to time, they managed to turn this black substance into a rich, purplish, powdered dye. Tyrian purple, as it was called by the Greeks, lit the world afire.

Up until that point, clothing had consisted largely of plain fabrics. But the emergence of powdered Tyrian purple enabled people to add permanent color to garments. The dye was particularly prized for the fact that it didn’t fade with sunlight or weathering. Instead, it brightened.

Tyrian purple quickly became a luxury good, available only to rulers and the wealthy. As such, purple textiles became a status symbol to the ancient civilizations that inhabited the Mediterranean region. Tyrian purple even outlasted the Phoenicians and only ceased production after Constantinople was sacked in 1204 AD.

During his excavation of the ancient Phoenician city-state of Sarepta, located in present-day Lebanon, James B. Pritchard discovered crushed Murex shells and dye-stained pottery containers. It is now believed that these artifacts represent the first production center for Tyrian purple. After the Phoenicians drove the Murex snail to near extinction in the eastern Mediterranean, production moved west to present-day Morocco.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The invention of Tyrian purple enabled Phoenicia to become a trading powerhouse. Using their dye-making expertise, they proceeded to create a second dye, which sometimes goes by the name of Hyacinth purple. In a short matter of time, Phoenician traders, widely known as the “traders in purple,” dominated the trade routes along the southern half of the Mediterranean Sea.

Although Tyrian purple eventually disappeared, its impact on the fashion world did not. It led to a long-lasting desire for colorful, luxury textiles that continues to this day. Perhaps more than any other civilization, Phoenicia created the modern fashion industry as we know it. And that makes the city-state of Sarepta the first “Fashion Capital of the World.”

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