Choosing what colors to wear when getting dressed may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but historically, various colors have carried much social and political significance as cultures and attitudes changed. In fact, some color movements over the last 200 years influenced politics and aesthetics in ways that still affect us today. Here are the stories behind some of our favorite shades!
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men’s and women’s clothing differed in shape and volume, but were often made of fabrics with similar patterns (such as florals) and colors (think pastels), and were ornamented with similar trims (such as brocade, lace, and braids). However, since the latter part of the eighteenth century, men’s clothing in particular has changed dramatically in terms of socially-acceptable options for color, pattern, and embellishment. Psychologist J.C. Flügel called it “The Great Masculine Renunciation,” and fashion journalist Alexander Fury described this phenomenon as “a revolution in cloth, a sartorial equivalent to the upheavals recently wrought in the Americas and France.”
At a time when many white men in the United States and France gained the ability to represent themselves politically, men’s dress also became markedly plainer and more somber. Muted tones such as gray, navy, and dark greens became popular, and clothing included fewer patterns and embellishments. Some historians theorize that the shift to solemnity in men’s clothing came from a subconscious desire to project a serious, reasonable image that would distinguish them from the more flouncy fashions associated with women, who could not participate in government at the same level.
Additionally, all classes in the newly-minted United States could wear this simpler clothing, which reinforced the idea of equality of opportunity for all men. The French Revolution, beginning just a year after the United States ratified its Constitution, had a similar effect on dress. As fashion historian Anne Hollander observed in her essay “Suiting Everyone: Fashion and Democracy,” “The French revolution brutally did away with the prestige of richly noble dress in France.” It popularized simpler, muted dress, which further cemented the “marriage of fashion and democracy.” The lasting power of dark suits and tuxedos is a testament to how much this shift in fashion still affects how people in the United States and Western Europe dress and perceive men’s fashion in the twenty-first century.
(1700s men’s fashion.)
(1810s men’s fashion.)
In the early 1800s, a brilliant green dye was created out of an arsenic solution and used on women’s clothes, the fake flowers that adorned their hats, as well as on home decor. As Alison Matthews David recounts, women who made bright green fake flowers suffered headaches, nosebleeds, and sores on their hands from working with the arsenic-tinted mesh, and some died of the poisoning. The fake flowers affected wearers, too, sometimes causing rashes around the neck and shoulders. When the United Kingdom declined to regulate the industry, women made it a social cause. Matthews David describes how groups such as the Ladies’ Sanitary Association published scientific information about arsenic-dyed greens, as well as stories about working-class women who had been poisoned by it. The campaign worked, and by the late 1800s many in society considered bright greens to be in bad taste because of their connection to poisonous dyes.
(Poisonous fake flower garlands from the 1800s.)
During the Suffrage Movement, women purposefully wore white to portray themselves as virtuous women of good character. As art historian and fashion theory professor Kimberly Wahl explains, to Edwardian society, white “appeared reassuringly feminine and conventional” and that the “color white in the context of mainstream fashion may have had obvious connotations of purity, respectability, decorum, and innocence.” Because opponents sometimes demeaned suffragists as being “ugly, masculine women” or as wearing boxy, ill-fitting clothing, Wahl explains, the Women’s Social and Political Union in the United Kingdom encouraged “the importance of appearance and self-care among followers of the movement.” In 1908, the WSPU introduced a white dress uniform for meetings and rallies. The color white also referenced early virginal saints and classical Greek dress, which people admired in the early 1900s. WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst could not have been unaware of this link to the saints, Wahl notes, as she “personally identified” with Joan of Arc and “quoted her in speeches.” It is Wahl’s opinion that fashion’s role in the Suffrage Movement “was far more significant than the existing literature might suggest.” Thus, the focus on colors and fashion during the suffragist movement was not frivolous, but a calculated strategy that paid off in the end.
(Suffragist Norah Balls in a white dress and sash.)
Black: Victorian to post-WWII
Victorians were obsessed with death and mourning, and they used copious amounts of black to represent the loss of life. Death was common, as adults died young, and many children still didn’t survive infancy at this time. In the 1860s, Queen Victoria set the example for ritualized mourning when her husband, Prince Albert, died and she mourned him until her own death 40 years later.
Mourning etiquette developed into strict rules that dictated what kinds of activities people, especially women, could participate in, what kind of stationery they wrote on, and—of course—what they wore. Victorian women in mourning were expected to wear all black with a long mourning veil for one year after their husbands passed. The mourning veil was made of a stiff black crepe. Crepe was actually another fabric that affected women’s health! The crepe (sometimes spelled “crape” when related to mourning) sometimes caused skin and eye irritations and left black dye on the skin.
Black grew out of its deathlike connotations and into the world of chic in the twentieth century. What started with Coco Chanel’s little black dress grew into a movement through the post–World War II period in Europe. In the late 1940s, clothes were sometimes scarce as Europe recovered from the war, so people wore what they had regardless of whether the color was en vogue yet.
Additionally, the Existentialist movement was attracted to black, using the color to symbolize the intellectual life (Audrey Hepburn does a fantastic spoof of the black-clad Existentialists in the movie Funny Face!) Some fashion historians theorize that Existentialism is how black got its “cool” connotation. To this day, of course, it is seen as rebellious and sophisticated.
(A woman wears black pants and a dark sweater while dancing in the 1940s.)
(Audrey Hepburn’s character, Jo Stockton, wears black to meet her favorite “Empathicalist” philosopher in Paris.)
Many people have theories about that dusty rose color that’s been ubiquitous in fashion and design for the last several years. A more muted shade than the bubblegum pink popular during the early 2000s, some think that it is an answer to the 2008 recession, that millennial pink is a pink without the vibrancy, a pink that’s been subdued by experience. Others point to the rise of minimalism in design, especially in tech, as the start of the millennial pink craze, which Pantone named a joint “color of the year” in 2016 (although they called it “rose quartz”). It may be a reaction to changing social norms, or related to millennials’ nostalgia for the innocence of childhood.
Society and color continually influence each other. Sometimes societies associate feelings and ethics with certain colors, which then makes those colors more or less popular. But colors can also affect peoples’ emotions and change how they perceive people and products. Throughout history, people have—sometimes unwittingly—used colors to represent their values and ideals. Considering the political upheaval that may define the last decade, it will be interesting to see what colors society collectively turns toward to express ideas and goals in the next few decades.