Breaking The Secret Fashion Color Code Across Eras and Cultures
Did you know that in the Middle Ages street prostitutes used to dress in yellow and not in red like they currently do? With yellow, they were easily spotted in dark alleys.
This and much more can be learned by visiting the “Fashion in Color” exhibition, at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague from September, 26th 2020 to February, 28th 2021. After the temporary closure for lockdown, it opened again on the 19th of November.
Maarten Spruyt (Art director) and Madelief Hohé (Curator of Fashion) guide us in the secret language of fashion, where each color has its own meaning. This has changed across eras, continents, and societies based on cultural and historical perspectives. Unlike animals, human beings see most of the colors. In fashion, we use them as self-expression. That makes us unique and connects us as species.
Born to replace an exhibition of great appeal which was deferred to post-Covid times, “Fashion in Color” turned out to be a good choice for these unprecedented times for two reasons. On the one hand, it gives inspiration, hope, courage, pride, and gratitude through every rainbow color. On the other hand, it shows for the first time unique items from the museum’s own collection of more than 50,000 pieces that have never been on the public before.
Both reasons take on a relevant meaning for us as human beings. They are a sort of guide on how to navigate uncertainty and find our deepest essence as mankind: never stop hoping and use our own inner resources to create something unexpectedly positive and beautiful.
The rooms are divided by thematic colors, with costumes from different ranges of eras and cultures, dating from the eighteenth century to the present day. The exhibition includes garments by famous and emerging designers: Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood, Gianni Versace, Valentino, Emanuel Ungaro, and the Dutch Iris van Herpen to name a few.
Let’s immerse in the dazzling color explosion and enjoy the design!
White. In the Middle Ages, the basic colors were black, white, and red. Bright colors were regarded as evil, an earthly temptation that must be avoided. The Bible associated white with good, black with darkness and sin, and red with danger. White, therefore, symbolizes innocence and chastity and is the color of supreme purity. In Japan and India, white is a color of mourning. In India, widows wear white.
Natural shades. In the Middle Ages, the common people could not afford the expensive dyed clothes, so they used to wear wool and linen in their natural shades from cream to brown. In late medieval dress codes, russet was worn by farmworkers, herders, and similar. The word ‘khaki’ is Urdu for ‘dust-colored’. Since the nineteenth century, the khaki fabric has been widely used by soldiers as camouflage. The word ‘beige’ comes from French and originally denoted a fabric woven from undyed and unbleached sheep’s wool. It was only in the 1920s that those colors became popular and elegant when Coco Chanel popularised cream, beige, brown, and black. At the same times, it became fashionable to drive in open cars. Many driving jackets were made from beige or khaki fabrics so that they did not show up the dust.
Brown. Brown pigments are among the oldest in the world and were made from mud and minerals. Brown was not considered a festive color. A particular shade of this color, called “mummy brown” was made of remains of ancient Egyptian mummies, supplied by pharmacists. This practice continued until the 1960s.
Black. In the past, black has been associated with mourning, darkness, and sin. With the emergence of Calvinism, black was seen as a decent and respectable color, always appropriate. With better dyeing methods introduced around 1360, it continued to be one of the most used colors, until Coco Chanel gave it dignity of a joyful, desirable and festive color. A black dress was the ultimate outfit for partying and dancing. Today, black is associated with avant-garde fashion, the art world, (Japanese) minimalist fashion, and various twentieth-century youth cultures.
Yellow. Now it stands for sunny and cheerful, but for many centuries yellow evoked negative associations, related to xenophobia and morale. It was used to identify Jews, Muslims, and prostitutes and related to segregation. While yellow had a negative connotation, golden was seen as a positive color. In the 18th century the mode for Chinese fabric and interiors decoration, mostly in yellow, started to change the association into a fashionable color. In the 19th century, French books on pornographic and dangerous still had a yellow cover as a sign of danger. Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s, vibrant yellow and orange were expressions of the emerging youth culture. In China, instead, yellow was associated with the imperial family. During the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D.), it was forbidden for common people to wear clothes and accessories in reddish-yellow.
Orange. Until the introduction of Isaac Newton’s color spectrum in 1666 and the identification of the seven colors of the rainbow, orange was not an independent color. Indeed it didn’t even have its own name. In English, it was called “giolureade” or yellow-red. The most famous orange apparel is the robe worn by Buddhist monks, whose color must be naturally obtained, from turmeric or saffron. Orange is the national color of the Netherlands because the royalty belongs to the House of Orange-Nassau. The Dutch flag was initially orange, white, and blue but orange was replaced by red due to sun bleaching. In some historical periods, orange was the color of opposition. In the Nazi times (1940-1945) the Resistance badge was orange and so was the cockade during the French occupation in the Netherlands in 1799. For its high visibility, it is used for safety vests and warning signage on roads. The airplane “black box” is indeed orange and not black.
Red. Coco Chanel said: «Red is the color of life, of blood. I love red». It is the color of danger, passion, lust, and aggression. With its expensive pigments, it has been strongly associated with power. In ancient Roman times, only military commanders could wear a costly cloak in this color. Later it was adopted by Europe’s royal courts. In Christian culture, red was associated with the biblical whore of Babylon and with the devil. In India and China, many brides wear red because of its association with vitality and happiness.
Green. Since the Middle Ages, green has been associated with witches, fools, envy, and disease. Green was difficult to dye and faded quickly. At the end of the 18th century, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele extracted the green pigment from copper arsenite. Despite its toxicity, it was extensively used for dresses, interiors, cakes, and sweets for most of the 19th century. In nature, green symbolises growth and change. Green has therefore become the symbol of change in all areas. Today, green is mostly associated with environmentalism and health. Green attained important status in the Islamic world from the 12th century onwards because of its association with heavenly gardens. It symbolizes happiness, wealth, water, heaven, and hope. Green is present in many of the flags of Muslim countries.
Blue. Ancient Romans avoided blue as deemed as barbaric. Indeed Teutonic and Celtic warriors used to paint their bodies and faces with woad, a blue vegetable dye, to intimidate the enemy in battle. In the late Middle Ages, blue was increasingly seen as a genteel and decent color, based on the cult of the Virgin Mary and her modesty. The predominance of blue can be still seen in the 18th and 19th century garments. Then indigo blue became more and more popular in Europe and consolidated its spreading with jeans, originally a sturdy workman’s clothing. In Christian culture, blue represents heaven and is often associated with peace and spirituality. The ultramarine pigment used to be obtained by lapis lazuli dust. It was extremely expensive and used for painting only. For clothing, woad was used instead.
Pink. In the 18th century, pink was a neutral, unisex color. It was associated with girls only in the 1930’s. In the same years, Elsa Schiaparelli created shocking pink and made it her signature color. Today, pink is once again becoming gender-neutral and more the color of extremes. The Nazis used to identify gay men in the concentration camps with a pink triangle. Later this symbol was adopted by the gay liberation movement.
Purple. In ancient Roman times, purple pigments were very rare and expensive. Tyrian purple was as costly as silver but had a very unpleasant smell. It was extracted from the mucus of sea snails treated in a urine bath. Purple was worn as a display of power or during mourning. In the 19th century, it became very popular with the Liberty style. Later it was adopted as one of the colors of the women’s movement. The English suffragettes wore white for purity, purple for freedom, and green for hope. In America, while white still represented purity, they replaced green with gold for hope and associated purple with loyalty instead of freedom. This still applies today: Kamala Harris wore a purple suit at her first public appearance as Joe Biden’s vice president.
What is your favorite color? Did you change your perception about any color?