50 Shades of Color: Evolution of Palettes ; Book Explores the Force of Tints and Dyes in Industry and Fashion

By Rawsthorn, Alice | International Herald Tribune, September 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

50 Shades of Color: Evolution of Palettes ; Book Explores the Force of Tints and Dyes in Industry and Fashion


Rawsthorn, Alice, International Herald Tribune


A new book, "The Color Revolution," by the cultural historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk, shows what a powerful force color has been -- socially, culturally and economically.

Staid, sedate and, let's face it, rather frumpy, Queen Victoria, who ruled Britain for much of the 19th century, was an unlikely style icon. Yet the dress she wore to her eldest daughter's wedding in 1858 caused a fashion sensation, thanks to the unusual color of its velvet bodice and petticoat laces.

It was a sumptuous shade of pale purple, which was the product of a botched experiment by William Henry Perkin, a student at the Royal College of Chemistry. While trying to invent an anti-malarial drug in a makeshift laboratory at his family's East London home in 1856, he noticed that his formula had stained a cotton rag in a beautiful lilac or mauve hue. Perkin abandoned his studies to commercialize his discovery by opening a dye works with his father and brother. Thanks to Queen Victoria's wedding outfit, the new color was nicknamed Queen's Lilac and became so popular that the following year Punch magazine reported an epidemic of "mauve measles" among fashionable women.

A similar combination of scientific ingenuity, entrepreneurial verve and seductive colors is the subtext to a new book, "The Color Revolution," by the cultural historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk. Exploring the use of color by American manufacturers from the mid- 1800s when scientists, like Perkin, were inventing new industrial pigments and dyes, until the mid-20th century, it shows what a powerful force color has been -- socially, culturally and economically.

Ms. Blaszczyk begins by explaining the historic importance of color. In ancient Egypt, ointment jars were made of deep blue cobalt and white glass, and public monuments in ancient Greece were painted in vivid hues. Color also featured in the "Sumptuary Laws," which were introduced by many countries during the Middle Ages to regulate what people from different social classes were allowed to wear, principally to prevent pushy arrivistes from dressing "above their station." One of Queen Victoria's feistier ancestors, King Henry VIII, insisted on being the only person in the country to be permitted to wear purple during his reign.

Up until the mid-19th century, bright colors were the preserve of the wealthy, the only people who could afford them. Yet the dyes used in even the most expensive items were so unstable that they often faded or discolored. The development of chemical dyes, like Perkin's, enabled more shades to be created in brighter, longer lasting hues. People responded by choosing the vivid colors that had until then been denied them when clothing themselves and furnishing their homes, prompting the upper classes to choose subtler shades as a form of snobbish protest.

Color's newfound popularity prompted manufacturers to find ways of managing it efficiently. A new profession emerged to help, the "color stylists" or "color engineers," who are the heroes and heroines of Ms. Blaszczyk's book. Mostly self-taught, they were an eclectic bunch, many of whom had started out in different fields only to reinvent themselves as color experts. Typically, they advised companies on how to respond to the latest hues from Europe, principally those chosen by the Paris couturiers, who were the dominant influence over the style of American consumer goods. …

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