When we use the term “origin story” it is often in the context of a super hero - Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider or Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents as a young child, leading him down a path that would result in becoming a cowled avenger. But what of the more pedestrian elements of our world? It is one thing to fabricate a tale of a web-slinging teenager able to fly through the air on a lattice of literal spider’s webs, it is another to consider the shade of red Ferrari uses for its signature sports cars (Rosso corsa) or how it was that Saffron, that most vibrant of oranges, was first synthesized (not to mention why the color orange became so closely identified with the Netherlands).
Leave it to Kassia St. Clair to act as your guide. In The Secret Lives of Color St. Clair takes us on a fascinating, well-researched, and beautifully written tour of the color wheel. Of course, color is something we often take for granted. There are some basic rules of complementary shades, the inevitable swatches married couples affix to the walls of their new homes, noodling over the subtle differences between eggshell and natural white, but St. Clair makes a compelling argument for color as a foundational aspect of human history, from the defining color of British warships during World War II (Mountbatten Pink) to the Bronze-era Uffington White Horse (Chalk).
St. Clair is a quick wit who one imagines enjoys a bawdy joke. There is a tanginess to her writing that I found irresistible - whether it was describing the “egret-feathered top to glimmering cat suited toe” outfit worn by Bunny Roger, the inventor of capri pants, on the occasion of his 70th birthday as being “menopausal mauve” or digging up “piss brindle” as a pejorative for redheads, Secret is larded with bon mots that make the pages fly by. And St. Clair takes to her work with what feels like an encyclopedic knowledge of history that will have you pin balling across the centuries, from Mary, Queen of Scots adorned in a Scarlet undergown when she meets the headsman’s ax to the use of Baker-Miller Pink in prisons in the late 1970s because it was thought to make people less aggressive.
At other points, you will marvel at how much St. Clair is able to squeeze into a single entry. To take one example, in three pages on Prussian Blue, you will learn of its discovery (a wonky chemical reaction in the 1700s caused by animal oil-laden potash), its scientific name (iron ferrocyanide), Picasso’s use of it during his famed Blue Period, and that it is used as a treatment for thallium and radioactive cesium poisoning (the only side effect being that it turns your poop blue - another little factoid St. Clair wedges into the discussion). It does not get much better than that.
And lest you think colors-of-the-moment (looking at you Millenial Pink) are a new phenomenon, St. Clair is here to disabuse you of any such notion. Consider Puce, so named by the monarch Louis XVI because he thought it resembled the color of fleas, but loved by his wife Marie Antoinette, whose adoption of the color was met with widespread favor among the hoi polloi (that is, until the French Revolution). Or think of Violet, a color that became synonymous with then-radical painters in late-19th century France who are now recognized modern masters we call the Impressionists.
It is unsurprising that art plays such a central role in St. Clair’s tale, for color - and specific colors within the broader spectrum - are associated with everything from Van Gogh’s famed sunflowers (Chrome Yellow) to the subtle nuance of nature “fading off into the distance.” (Payne’s Gray). But color is not limited to the artist’s palette. Shocking Pink was appropriated by Marilyn Monroe and Fluorescent Pink by the Sex Pistols to express two very different forms of libertine behavior. In the entry about Cerulean I was hoping for a nod to the famous monologue by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada as she explains how that particular shade of blue was used in haute couture before moving through the lower ranks of fashion and landing on the slumped shoulders of her dowdy assistant (played by Anne Hathaway), but alas, it was not meant to be.
If there is one note of caution, it is this. For those of us who bombed out of the sciences right around the time we were asked to distinguish between protons and electrons, Secret can sometimes feel like a bad flashback to chemistry class. And this is not St. Clair’s fault, many of the colors she features stem from some form of chemical reaction or process that is beyond the understanding of people without a natural affinity for such things. But this is a minor quibble - Secret is a joy from Lead White to Pitch Black.
The highest compliment an author can receive is that she has left the reader wanting more, and so it is with St. Clair. It is not the final entry that saddened me, but rather, the Glossary of Other Interesting Colors that followed as a sort of epilogue, for it was a list long enough to fill a book I suspect we will not see - The Secret Lives of Color, Volume II.
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