The Color of Fashion

By Blaszczyk, Regina Lee | Humanities, March/April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Color of Fashion


Blaszczyk, Regina Lee, Humanities


Every fashionista remembers the scene. In The Devil Wears Prada, aspiring journalist Andrea Sachs, slumming it as a personal assistant to fashion editor Miranda Priestly, sniggers as the magazine staff banters over which "stuff" to put in a photo shoot. With catlike speed and a worldweary delivery, Priestly sizes up Andrea's lumpy blue sweater and explains that it isn't just blue or Turquoise or Lapis, but Cerulean, introduced by Paris designer Oscar de la Renta in 2002. From the catwalk, Cerulean Blue attracted the attention of several other designers and eventually found its way to mass retailers like Casual Comer, where proletarians like Andrea shop for bargains. "It's sort of comical how you think you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry," Priestly concludes, "when in feet, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room."

Cerulean Blue. It's a striking name for a striking hue, but it isn't a color that Oscar de Ia Renta invented. In 1999, the Americanbased color authority, Pantone, Inc., selected Cerulean Blue, described as the color of the sky on a serene, crystal clear day, as the "official color for the millennium." Pantone is one of several global color consultancies that help big businesses like Apple, Mattel, and Nike make color choices for product development

As colorists forecast, they must anticipate changes in taste several years in advance. They take into consideration the lead time needed for dye manufacturers to secure raw materials and negotiate contracts with suppliers, and the relentless shifts in consumer tastes. So, when Oscar de la Renta draped his fabulous Cerulean Blue gown, he may have been inspired by a Pantone color chip created well before the millennium. What seemed cutting edge on the Paris catwalk had, in fact, been imagined years earlier by color forecasters laboring over fabric swatches and paint chips somewhere in New Jersey.

None of this would have been possible without a confluence of circumstances that linked English ingenuity, German chemistry, French fashion, and American entrepreneurship. The Germans perfected reliable dyes, while the French created high fashion. For decades, the New York fashion industry copied the Europeans, until two American women transformed the business by setting color standards for manufacturers and scooping the Paris prognosticators.

Despite its curious name, there's nothing strange or mysterious about the process that created Cerulean Blue. Color forecasting is a profession with a long history, going back to the late 1800s when French textile mills first issued color cards. These foldout books, made from paper and ribbon samples, showed what colors were popular among Paris dressmakers and milliners in the current season. On this side of the Atlantic, French color cards became valuable tools for textile mills, tanneries, straw makers, and feather importers-the industries that supplied the ready-to-wear business, hatmakers, and shoe factories. Manufacturers matehed their dye lots to a particular shade card, ensuring that the thread used to sew a pair of fine kid gloves matched the color of the leather, or that Porcelaine Blue was really Porcelaine Blue.

The history of reliable colors that don't fade in sunlight or streak when washed dates to Victorian England, when teenaged chemist William Perkin stumbled across a new purple dye while running experiments to synthesize quinine in 1856. Perkin's mauveine ignited a chemical revolution, launching the synthetic dye industry.

Before this, dyes were made only from natural materials like plants and shells, and most faded over time. Since ancient times, the people of lyre, in what is now Lebanon, had made purple dye from the ingredient found only in two types of rare mollusks that live along the eastern Mediterranean coast, making this expensive color fit only for the robes of kings and princes. The new synthetic dyes, inexpensively manufactured from coal tar that didn't run or fade, changed how purple was made. …

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