When we think of different colours, we imagine them as abstract, unchangeable entities, catalogued in identification charts, each one ordered according to its own Pantone code. We are led to believe that colours just “exist”, but the fact is that this issue is much more complex.
The dress whose colours launched a global discussion
On the 27th February 2015, when the singer Caitlin McNeill posted a photo of a dress on Tumblr and asked her followers if it was black and blue or white and gold, she didn’t think she was triggering a heated debate that would monopolise the web for days. Some people, in fact, thought the dress was black and blue, others white and gold. So, who was right? The truth is that the two versions coexisted and both were right (for those who didn’t catch “the battle of the dress”, you can read about it here
According to Kassia St Clair, as explained in the introduction to her book “The Secret Lives of Colour” (pubd. in Italy by UTET libri, with a translation by Claudia Durastanti) the reason for the photo’s ambiguity is our perception of colour. If half of us saw one thing and the other half saw something completely different, it is because our brain needs clues to establish what colour an object is. Clues like the light that surrounds it. «Some people imagined the dress was bathed in a very strong light and so their brains adapted and darkened the colours, while others thought it was shrouded in shadow, so their brains lightened it and removed its blueish veil.»
This early 2015 web storm shows that if it is true that we all see the world in colour – which is accepted as a universal fact – then it is also true that we cannot say how the colour our eyes perceive is interpreted by our brain. Today, no one has yet been able to establish whether we all see the same shade of red when we look at a ripe tomato, for example. When we look at a tomato (or that famous striped dress), the light enters our eye through its lens and hits its retina that contains millions of light sensitive cells called cones and rods. These transmit the information through the body’s nervous system to the brain, which interprets them as colour. And that’s where the chaos of colour begins. Black and violet, white and gold.
Morning Dress from Ackermann's Repository, circa 1819. Right, the cover of the Italian version of The Secret Lives of Colour
The issue becomes even more complex when we realise that, in addition to being a physical phenomenon, colour is also an amazing cultural construct.
While she was studying copies of the “Ackermann Repository” (one of the oldest fashion magazines in existence, kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum) Kassia St Clair – who writes about design and culture for a wide range of English newspapers, magazines and radio stations – discovered that not all of the descriptions of these bygone fashion garments were completely clear to her. Some of the shades described bore no resemblance to the language of contemporary colour. Bewitched by this world that she only partly understood, she began to map the different shades. Her choice of colour palette is based on a criterion of extraordinariness and eccentricity and features 75 colours from the worlds of history, art, anthropology and fashion.
Khaki and heliotrope classified as browns and violets.
Khaki, for example, was the first colour used for a military uniform that did not attract attention, but blended into the landscape instead. And heliotrope, «a pleasant word to pronounce that fills the mouth like a rich, buttery sauce», was once an exclusive colour and a symbol of devotion – that could even be worn during mourning in the Victorian period – but is now as good as dead itself. Another example is “flesh”, a tone that has existed in the fashion market since the 1920s (when it was used mainly for women’s underwear) and, predictably, refers to Caucasian skin tone. Who, after all, can wear a tone of pink to obtain a “nude” effect? Calling a colour “flesh” clearly conceals a problem of ethnocentrism that can no longer be overlooked.
Another factor that adds to this book’s interest is the issue of language. As Claudia Durastanti - who has both translated St Clair’s book and written an introduction to it - observes, when colours move from one language to another, the confusion increases. For example, purple is not a red, but a violet for the English, and to return to flesh, for Italians it is unanimously pink, whereas St Clair classifies it amongst the oranges. Translation is immersed in a world of interpretation that in turn generates a curious and wonderful mapping process with a potentially infinite number of layers.