Honor Clerk

Pink for boys, blue for girls and a worldwide mania for mauve

Two new books, by James Fox and Paul Simpson, explore many aspects of colour, including changing fashions throughout the centuries

‘Portrait of a boy in a pink sailor suit’ by Jacques-Émile Blanche. [Bridgeman Images]

It would seem, if recent publications are anything to go by, that we have an insatiable appetite for this subject. A quick search of books on colour throws up six titles in just the past three years, a further half dozen published as a set in February this year, another volume in a series by the Sorbonne academic Michel Pastoureau and now these two.

For James Fox, Cambridge academic and television art historian, a fascination with colour came when, as a six-year-old, he saw a squashed iridescent insect, and one gets the feeling that this book has been quietly simmering at the back of his mind ever since. ‘Read it, if you like,’ the author enjoins us at the outset, ‘as a cultural history of colour; though I think of it as a history of the world, according to colour.’ Not a modest claim, but as the text ranges from a Stone Age red ochre factory to Apollo 8, from human sacrifice to wallpaper production, from the human and political connotations of colour and race to Dior’s Little Black Dress, neuroscience, the chemistry of pigment, colour in music and literature and the sociological and psychological effects of colour, it all begins to seem fair enough.

After 1856, ‘mauve mania’ spread across the world, and out of the melée emerged magenta

Each of the seven chapters of Fox’s narrative relates to a different colour, not the Newtonian ROYGBIV familiar to us all from the rainbow, but black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green. Within each chapter an intricate thread weaves its way through any number of different topics. In ‘Black’ for instance, an exploration of scotopic vision, or the way in which the eye adapts to the dark, Fox describes an alternative light world in which darkness ‘necessitates an unusually industrious mode of looking: problem-solving, self-reflexive’.

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