“As alabardas esquinas para épocas pomposas, verde-negro, roxo-velho e granada o tom das roupagens (…)”, so writes Fernando Pessoa through the pen of Bernardo Soares in O Livro do Desassossego. These colors are not far from the ones worn by the Portuguese in the 17th century, shades of green tending to the dark ones, ecclesiastical purples and violets, the stately black, and the sepias that will become ever more present towards the middle of the century.
Although colors are all resolved in shades of gray in this story, their presence is important in understanding the people that wore them.
The Portuguese men of great or even not so great importance walked slowly their hands resting on their hips or on the hilts of their swords as a sign of distinction and (at least this is what they thought) to impose respect, used to send their servants with their own chairs ahead of them to the church, and when possible had another servant behind them with a parasol. If they could afford to sustain them they would be carried on a sedan chair and were followed by a troupe of swordsmen. Sometimes their slow-motion trip through importance would be interrupted by a rival brandishing a lethal weapon. It could be one of those swords with complicate guards depict in the screens, or even a Japanese sword (Japanese weapons were much appreciated and were smuggled out of Japan in great quantities), or it could be a pistol fired from a window. Their women, if they wanted to be considered deign of respect, would also walk slowly along or behind them with their women servants, their heads covered by a long shawl, and when at home would sit on cushions, not on chairs, behind shadowed windows, weaving in the company of other women. Or at least this is what they were supposed to do. They could have had a stronger role to play in these parts than the one that was traditionally assigned to them, and there are some indications they did.
These people wore black and dark greens or sepias, occasionally red, on stately occasions, which means, for some of them, all occasions they were out of home without wearing an armor suit. Long trips on board an overcrowded ship must have been an ordeal for them.
But as life on hot climates away from the etiquette of the court can be slightly more relaxed, they sometimes wore brighter shirts showing from under their vests and even indulge, in private meetings, in rolling their stockings and dip their feet in water to appreciate a large cup of wine on a fresh corner of their gardens (different ways of drinking are also important, it seems Japanese considered the Portuguese to be arrogant, unreliable and drunkard, the English also arrogant, more reliable but even more drunkard, and the Dutch the most boring type of arrogant because they didn’t drink).
Other people were not so constrained by etiquette, although there must have been a limited amount of fashion options and some more or less intricate boundaries had to be carefully respected (or disrespected).
Servants dressed at the expense of their masters, merchants and swordsmen show, on the namban screens, the same colors as above and a more generous amount of red, light or grayish green, dark and light brown (possibly a buff leather or padded jerkin here and there), ocher and yellow, and a great variety of striped or patterned cloth. At the bottom of the scale are the tartan patterns that seem to be very popular for servants, sailors and slaves, a light green or light brown fabric that must have been cheap to produce and commissioned in great quantities.
The striped or patterned cloth appears also in the paintings of S. Roque, worn by children or by local people from Goa, where the dominant colors are red with white and brown, and white and red stripes. Also the sort of large loose trousers made of a rainbow type of vertically striped cloth appear already in the tapestries of D. João de Castro, dated from the end of the first half of the 16th century.
It would be interesting to know the provenience of those fabrics. The tartan could originate in a number of places in Europe, including Portugal, while the patterned and stripped cloth could be made in India and some in China. I am just guessing. Both cotton and silk must have been used, because similar patterns are worn by characters of very different social standings.
As for the cloth, striped blue and white, very common in latter Japanese prints, it doesn’t appear on the screens. Japanese taste for colors looks in there very much like the Portuguese one (black, brown and green mostly) with a particular tendency for gray, blue and red (or pink) with flower patterns for women and children.
But naturally the colors are similar, since they have been done with the same palette.