Magazine article Psychology Today

It's a Colorful Life

Magazine article Psychology Today

It's a Colorful Life

Article excerpt

KASSIA ST. CLAIR admits to being obsessed with color, but she believes we should all pay more attention to the complex hues around us, even if our eyes deceive us about what we're really seeing.

AS THE DAUGHTER of a London florist, Kassia St. Clair grew up surrounded by natural colors. Later, as a graduate student researching what women wore to 18th-century masquerade balls, she encountered a world of terms for colors that had long since faded from use but whose deployment once helped determine a lady's social status. Now an author and columnist for Elle Decoration, St. Clair has written The Secret Lives of Color, diving into the science, economics, and political history of 75 colors, from heliotrope to hematite, and absinthe to obsidian.

WHEN YOU WALK DOWN THE STREET WITH FRIENDS, AND SOMEONE SAYS, "LOOK AT THAT GREAT RED HAT," DO YOU HAVE TO RESTRAIN YOURSELF FROM SAYING "NO, THAT'S REALLY VERMILION"? They are always asking me, "What color would you call this?" It's like constantly being tested. People are also disappointed to see that I sometimes just wear black like everyone else.

HOW DID BLACK BECOME THE GO-TO COLOR FOR THE URBAN INTELLIGENTSIA? This is not a modern phenomenon at all. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws regulated what people could wear, the idea being to make sure everyone visibly belonged to the right social stratum. Purples and reds, which were historically the most expensive dyes, were restricted to certain levels of society. People rising up the social ranks were frustrated that they weren't able to wear colors that they could afford but weren't allowed access to. But black wasn't part of the sumptuary system in many places, because the knowledge to create darker dyes came along fairly late in medieval Europe. So you were able to dye luxurious fabrics like velvet black. It was vanity: Young, wealthy merchants wanted to show that they had taste and could afford expensive things, and black remained fashionable because it is austere and different.

HOW ELSE HAS COLOR TELEGRAPHED POLITICAL STATUS? In China, imperial yellow was a very difficult and expensive dye to create. Orange was chosen by the House of Orange because of the name, but orange was also a rare fruit. The imperial purple reserved for royalty was made using a particular mollusk. At one time, these poor mollusks were hunted to near extinction to get the dye, which was worth its weight in gold, literally.

HAVE OUR PERCEPTIONS OF COLORS' SIGNIFICANCE CHANGED OVER TIME? The classic example is blue and pink. If you go back just over a century, blue was the girl's color and pink was the boy's. Now that feels alien to us because we're so inculcated with the belief that pink is feminine, buta century ago, people are saying exactly the opposite-that blue is more feminine and pink is more martial.

CAN THE NAME OF A COLOR INFLUENCE OUR REACTION TO IT? Completely. During the French Revolution, you have new fabrics in various shades with amazing names like Sweet Sighs and Peasant's Follies. Electric blue has been associated with the idea of modernity and the future since the Victorian Age and somehow that association has remained, which is kind of odd because most people's experience of a light bulb is not blue.


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