A symbolic history of blue
How blue has become pervasive in menswear
Perceiving colours is in no small way a subjective matter. One is well aware of the way marketing trends invent colours and poetically transform the most horrendous hues into literary delights—pissy yellow will take on a ‘buttery tinge’, the muddiest burgundy will be powerfully described as ‘oxblood’ while the dullest brown will pass for ‘chocolate’.
Colours are also susceptible to context—when you choose your outfit of the day, you’re essentially choosing a colour (or combination of colours) in line with your day’s programme. Colour usually takes precedence over considerations of fit, fabric and style. The supposedly infinite palette of colours at our disposal is actually limited to a structurally determined set of prevailing colours.
Not everybody owns a bright red suit whereas we all have at least one dark blue suit. There are social explanations that can account for that and they have been subject to historical variations.
Gradually, without even being aware of it, we have elected blue as the predominant colour of our wardrobe. Blue suits, blue jeans and blazers, bright blues and dark blues, light blue gingham or striped shirts—blue can be elegantly formal or laid-back. It is not due to chance but the result of historical and cultural processes that have to do with the founding symbols of our society.
Historian Michel Pastoureau’s work on colours is part of a larger body of work dealing with symbolic codes from the Middle Ages to contemporary society. His books enable us to better understand the colours we wear.
One thus realizes that, initially, blue did not really exist as a colour! Even worse, in ancient times, blue was considered barbaric (Germans and Celts would rub their bodies with blue to fight their enemies): “In Rome, wearing blue was usually considered demeaning, eccentric, (…) or a sign of mourning. Blue eyes were almost considered a disgrace. For women it meant a licentious character; on men, it was perceived as effeminate, barbaric or simply ridiculous.” (p. 27)
Among symbols in the Middle Ages, blue did not have a specific role whereas red was a sign of power, white expressed purity, black suggested obscurity or dirtiness. Oppositions were between dark versus bright fabrics (black / white), natural or dyed fabrics (white / red). Green was the colour of vegetation and fate. The various oppositions between pure and dirty, dark and bright were expressed by using green, black, white, and purple: blue was not part of that mental organization.
Blue was not featured among the knightly symbols of early Arthurian novels or in any way a part of the Christian liturgy as defined in an early work by Pope Innocent III at the end of the XIIth century: white was supposed to be used to celebrate Christmas, the Epiphany, All Saint’s Day; red was for Whitsun, or the Apostles’ Days; black was used during the masses for the dead or Lent…
Innocent III suggesedt that green be used when none of these colours was appropriate as “green is half-way between white, black and red”.
This text also stated that purple could replace black and yellow could replace green. Up until the XIIth century, in the symbolic order of visual perception, blue was hardly distinguishable at all.
From the XIIth onwards, some colour-loving theologians (from the Cluny Abbey, then Abbot Suger, the founder of the basilica of Saint Denis) promoted the embellishment of temples: blue gradually appeared next to white and gold to suggest the divine nature of light.
Blue was also significantly associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary as it appeared on stained glass windows to contribute to lighting churches. Blue also appeared as part of heraldry, most prominently in the emblem of the King of France. Philippe-Auguste, Saint Louis and King Henry III were among the first kings to wear blue.
Technically, blue is not easy to obtain: woad grew in Europe but was not a powerful dye and indigo (coming from India as the name reveals) was very costly. Conversely, red was easily produced thanks to rubia tinctorum, or madder (also, more costly, using mollusks like murex snails, or kermes, made from cochineal insects).
As blue developed, the herb woad became increasingly widespread. Its dried paste, called “pastel”, was in such vogue among drapers and dye makers (who dyed the fabric and not the threads themselves) that certain cities and regions made it a specialty and became very rich, like Toulouse, Picardie and Normandie in France, and later, in the XIVth century, Languedoc.
The south of France was thus called the “Land of Cockaigne” (from the cock-shaped pastel). The fierce competition between red and blue dyers (one was not allowed to dye both colours in that age of strict privileged corporations) gave way to many lawsuits and conflicts (in Strasburg, red dyers once paid stained glass makers to paint their devils in blue so as to give a bad name to blue!), not to mention the competition of dyers with leather makers for the use of rivers.
At the end of the XIVth century, blue superseded red. It was becoming a fashionable colour, a noble colour, full of joy, expressing virtue as it was associated with the Virgin Mary and divine light.
Yet, the XVth and XVIth centuries were in grey, black and all the darker hues of brown and blue. The Protestant Reformation’s austere view of clothing had a lasting effect. Mixing moral and economic reasons, sumptuary laws limited extravagance (especially imports) while social segregation demanded that everyone wore colours and fabrics according to their ranks and forbade anything conspicuously boastful.
Michel Pastoureau calls that general attitude “Reformation’s phobia for colour” (p.93). In that theological context, clothes were always seen as somewhat sinful: adornments and embellishments, luxury, make up and ostentation were considered expressions of the most suspicious pride. Blue was not a strong symbol and was neither approved of or condemned: it was considered neutral, especially if it was dark.
Not until the XVIIIth century did blue become a powerful colour. Technical improvements made it easier to obtain blue (Prussian blue and various improvements coming from the work of chemists like Macquer, Raymond…).
Simultaneously, the indigo imported from America spelt catastrophe for European producers of woad. Blue became prominent during the Romantic era—Goethe’s hero Werther’s suit even initiating a blue craze after the release of his 1774 novel.
Blue also became a political colour thanks to the American and then French Revolution, taking its proud place on the national flag: the red, white and blue of American rebels was a response to the British Union Jack. The French Revolution soon after took over the combination (the white still indicating regal ruling power).
Red actually remained associated with patriotism, even to the point of military madness: the bright red trousers of French soldiers—which didn’t make any sense as a camouflage uniform—was used as late as Spring 1915 (‘The red trousers represent France!’ said a former war ministry in 1911…).
Their uniforms were then changed to blue and political symbolism shifted, with red firmly entrenched as a communist emblem (its pink, watered-down version now denotes socialism) while blue was gradually considered to be its opposite, representing ‘conservative’ parties.
As modern menswear was established during the late XIXth century, colours evolved into a strict code, brown and green for country wear (remember the ‘no brown in town’ motto…) and black for professional and formal wear. Black reigned supreme at the time, as it had in the XVth century. These cycles are based on many factors that imply technique, morals, politics and religion.
Blue made its comeback in the XXth century with a vengeance. Navy blue became the standard uniform (for police, postal workers and, of course, the Navy force) before invading the mainstream sphere. As Pastoureau points out, ‘one of the major sartorial facts of the XXth century is the transformation of black into blue’ (p. 143). Actually, this transformation is rather a structural shift since black still exists.
Black represents austerity and formal attire whereas navy blue has evolved as a form of ‘softened’ black, a more socially versatile version of the most extreme dark colour.
Colours as we wear them today come from that rearrangement of colours: black is now specifically used for codified formal occasions (black tie events, funerals, drivers’ or servants’ outfits) while blue can be either formal when dark or casual when brighter. It can also form a neutral background as is the case with the pervasive light blue shirt that enables a less stark contrast than white shirts.
It is as if blue had become the new black, a less aggressive colour that stands as its close opposite.
Blue is also a sort of default colour, like grey, a very adaptable hue that has become almost naturally, a banal choice for work clothes (overalls or jeans, which were initially work clothes) or a neutral background to use in contrast with other colours.
For contrary to black, there are many shades of blue and it is not by chance that it has become so prevalent in modern society where sartorial choices are freer and more open to mixing and matching colours than was the case in the XIXth century.
Thus, thanks to its symbolic neutrality and chromatic richness, blue has become the main colour of contemporary elegance…which inevitably raises the question of historical evolution and of the cyclic potential of colours—will red and green be back some day?
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– Opening picture : Cifonelli, Spring / Summer 2016
– Group picture : Pitti Uomo 88.
– Picture 3 : Cifonelli Spring/ Summer 2016.
– Picture 4 : First fitting for a bespoke suit at Gianni Celeghin, bespoke tailor in Legnano Italy.
– Picture 5 : “Praying Virgin”, Ecole de Tours, around 1480.
– Picture 6 : Portrait of the French King Philippe Auguste.
– Picture 7 : “Portrait de l’Arioste” by Titien (1508-1510).
– Picture 8 : “Portrait d’homme de Véronèse” (1585).
– Picture 9 : French troups departing for the frontlines in 1914.
– Picture 10 : The evolution of the French army’s uniform in 1915.
– Picture 11 : PG / Boggi Milano even in Paris
– Picture 12 : The author (made-to-measure Lanieri suit) and Hugo Jacomet (Cifonelli bespoke).
– Photo 13 : Red suit, Belvest 2015/2016.