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Stance, Erudition and Scorn


'Red and yellow and pink and green, orange and purple and blue.' Not so much a Cilla Black reference (from 'I Can Sing a Rainbow', as if anybody cared) as an introduction to the wonderful world of colours. I really like colours. Some more than others, of course - at the moment my favourites are bold colours, like purple, scarlet, fuchsia, emerald green, electric blue. Bold colours are cheerful. Wearing boldly coloured clothes makes me feel happy, vibrant, alive. Knowing the different names for the various shades of each colour makes me feel good, too. Being able to differentiate between lilac, mauve and purple; crimson, fuchsia and scarlet; lime green, moss green and bottle green; turquoise, azure and teal blue; navy, ultramarine and royal blue; beige, tan and taupe... I could go on, but I'm sending my co-editors to sleep here as it is!

I've noticed how it seems to be mostly women who distinguish so finely between different colours and shades. Men may go as far as checking that something's 'blue', without either knowing or caring which particular shade of blue it is. Admittedly, this is probably of most frustration to the woman who has to ask her partner, from inside a department store changing room, to 'bring me the blue one - no, not that one, the darker blue one, no that's no good either, get the one that's a bit more of a greeny- blue...' And, under such circumstances, the man in question would probably rather be anywhere else in the world than in that particular department store at the time, so maybe colour-cluelessness is more of a ploy on his part than an actual deficiency. Maybe I'll throw the subject open to my two male co-editors at this point: are men really more clueless about colours than women are?



Seurat? Michelangelo? John Logie Baird? Stevie Wonder? Were these men clueless about colours? I think not, with perhaps one exception. It's how interested you are in something that determines how sharp your perceptions are; hence the age-old cry of old-agers that 'All that modern music sounds the same to me'. But to me the blues of 'Have you seen her dressed in Blue?', 'Blue Monday', 'Blue Suede Shoes', 'Bloomsbury Blue', 'Soldier Blue' and, well, the Blues, are all different shades, without any of them having been shown to my eyes. It's just that hanging around in department stores makes the eyes blur over, so that different tints can no longer be distinguished.

The really challenging line of work for colour-spotting is astronomy. The young hopeful sets out one evening, armed with a book that solemnly tells him 'Betelgeuse is a fiery red colour, whilst Rigel is a clear blue-white. The contrast is very spectacular.' He finds Betelgeuse, and he finds Rigel. They appear white. He waits for his night vision to adjust. They remain white. He looks at them out of the corner of his eye, and, guess what, they look white. Eventually, after much squinting, he can get them to appear in colours other than white. In fact, they can appear in any colour at all, but a moment later they'll be a different colour entirely. At this point, he gets a headache, goes indoors, and watches The Goodies instead.

Only in my experience, of course. Rainbows are a lot easier, really, and prettier, too.


I love rainbows, and I'm amazed that more people don't look for them when the conditions are right. If there is rain coming down, but you can see the sun reasonably clearly, turn away from the sun and look around. Lots of times you'll see a faint rainbow that no-one else has noticed. I can't see all the colours in them, though - indigo and violet are just different shades of blue-ish.

I'm partly red-green colour-blind, too, and I lack names for colours, in exactly the way that you describe, Pam. I don't claim they're linked, though; it's more lack of interest in names. When I'm painting walls, or buying clothes, I'll think about which colour I like - if any - but I don't try to name them, or change them afterwards. I look at clothes to decide on colour, then try them on to make sure they fit, and no more. One shade I'd like a name for: the loud blue that Maggie used to wear a lot. I feel forced to call it 'Thatcher Blue', and it seems an insulting name for a nice colour.


I'm thinking of a royal blue here - and given Maggie's illusions of grandeur (like her announcement 'We are a grandmother' on the birth of son Mark's sprog, for example) it's probably a nicely ironic choice. Blue being the colour of the Tory party is probably another reason why Maggie wore it so much. I can't recall ever having seen her wear red (the Labour party's colour), though that might have made her look a little less like the sickly, scary ice-woman she became. Red, the colour of blood, life, fire, danger, 'stop' - the colour of the Labour party. Blue, the colour of the sky, cold, ice, sadness - the colour of the Conservative party. Is this significant? (I doubt it - they're just these colours, after all.)

Colours as identifiers, demarcations. A football strip. A school uniform. A means of knowing who is 'us' and who is 'them'. Colours for labels, not for free expression. Blue jeans. Black gothic. Pink for Karen Pender-Gunn. We know who the 'good guys' are by the colour of their scarves. A colour can be a label every bit as much as a name. And political correctness plays its part in the naming of colours as much as anything else. My mother insists that 'nigger brown' is a proper name for a colour and not in the least bit racist, for example. (She'd never dream of referring to a person as a nigger.) My attempts to encourage her to call that same colour 'chocolate brown' fall on deaf ears. She just doesn't see that it matters; she can't comprehend the insult in the words. 'It's just a name for a colour; that's its name.' Just because she doesn't mean any racism by it, none should be inferred. Simple.


The Labour Party's colour of red is significant. In 'The Red Flag' it's made pretty clear that it's red with the blood of proletarian heroes struck down by the capitalists. (If I'm wrong, I'm sure Joseph Nicholas will correct me.) In the French tricolour, and Kieslowski's Three Colours Trilogy of films inspired by it, the three colours of red, white and blue stand for liberty, fraternity and equality. (I've done some research since Attitude 3.) The Orange and the Green are extremely political not far from here, and the Yellow Peril, the Black Menace, the Rainbow Alliance, the White Man's Burden, the Thin Red Line and Little Green Men are all well-known colour-based political phrases.Then there's Green politics, typified by Greenpeace, with their ship, coincidentally named the Rainbow Warrior, possibly after a track by Deep Purple. (If I'm wrong, I'm sure Phil Nanson will correct me.) Speaking of pop groups, there are also Simply Red (unfortunately), Orange Juice, Yellowman, Green Day, Deacon Blue, the Indigo Girls and The Lilac Time. If they ever all join up, the result, of course, is Rainbow (or possibly The Colour Fields, or Whitesnake).

Touching lightly upon Captain Scarlet and Spectrum, because they're Just Too Easy, other TV programmes and films include Blue Thunder , The Blue Max (not to be confused with his Australian brother Mad), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café , Masque of the Red Death, Pretty in Pink and The City of Lost Children (which doesn't actually have any colours in the title, but is out now, and everyone should go and watch it).

And there's black, the most ambiguous colour there is. For every villainous black, there's a cool one too (or at least someone making efforts that way). Captain Black and Black Beauty; Mrs Black (Captain Fantastic's enemy in Do Not Adjust Your Set , played by Denise Coffey, which means she's black Coffey, ho ho) and Jet Black (look, do I have to explain all of these?); Blackbeard and Black Power Ranger (yes, I'm desperate). Black is the colour worn by pop groups more often than any other, now that the sixties are over (and who says there's no such thing as progress?). It's also the colour of death, except in China, where white is. (This is an important point in understanding Hong Kong Martial Arts Fantasy movies such as Mr Vampire. See, I'm informative as well as decorative.)

Then there are drinks with colours: black velvet, Blue Nun, blue lagoons, pink slippers, brown ale, red and white wine, and lots of kinds of real ale. (If I'm wrong, I'm sure any fan from Birmingham will correct me.)

I'm stopping now, before I turn green, see red, and black out.


Something else about colours: their deliberate mis-use. Wearing eye-searing combinations is a much easier way to stand out than simply indulging in one colour to excess. What's the most unwearable colour combination we can think of? Can we use it on the cover of Attitude 7?

Black and white, as non-colours, make it possible to emphasise any colour that you wear. Deliberate tastelessness is much rarer since everyone started trying to be cool, but there are historical examples that I treasure: the pyrotechnic complexities of older flags like the Stars and Stripes or the Union Flag, the ridiculously over-coloured robes of British affairs of state, the Marylebone Cricket Club tie, with its red and orange diagonal stripes, selected by the young drunkards who founded the club 210 years ago, and now adorning the most conservative necks in England.

Bright colours are cheap now, so they aren't a way of showing off any more. Imperial purple was first so called because only emperors could afford it; the coal-tar chemists of 19th-century Germany made it something that anyone could wear. SF has a few examples of clothes that reflect your mood - The Garments of Caean, by Barrington Bayley, is the most radical - while Global Hypercolour T-shirts tried it in the real world a few years ago. It didn't work very well, and it didn't catch on at all. Would you want to display your real moods, as opposed to those you'd dressed to project, Pam?


Well - and I bet many people are way ahead of me here - the answer to that is No Waaaaay! Part of the function of wearing bright colours is to fool the world into thinking of you as bright, alive, vibrant and fun to be around. (Sometimes they can even fool the wearer, too.) Mind you, dressing to display your real moods might be interesting. What about clothes that automatically changed colour as you got angry, for example: serene pale-blue twin-sets metamorphosing into harsh, studded leather jackets? (Hmm, now I rather like the idea!) Though if that mood-matching became too accurate, it could be embarrassing to leave home - not to mention totally pointless playing poker.

Maybe emperors were the only people who could afford imperial purple; certainly paintings used not to contain much blue, until a cheaper dye than ultramarine was discovered. But just because bright colours are cheap, why does that mean they're not a way of showing off any more? There are other ways of showing off than just using colour to parade one's wealth. (Thank goodness!) I'm particularly fond of a sequinned cap in brightly coloured sections which either goes with nothing or with everything, depending on which way you look at it, and I think that wearing it is a wonderful way to show off. It's the sort of garment that makes people say 'wow!' - or, more commonly, 'ewww!' - and that's certainly a way of getting noticed.

Coming back to colours with meanings, I rather like the New Orleans Mardi Gras colours of purple, green and orange, or the Suffragette colours of purple, green and white. I'm sure there's a whole industry that works on which colours to use for designing logos effectively. Certainly red is seen as a good colour for moving low-price goods effectively (the KitKat, the can of Coca Cola, the pack of Marlborough cigarettes). I have no idea about other colours and their effects - and can't remember now where I heard about the magic effects of marketing in red. Maybe it's a theory from the 1980s, though, and we're all much too sophisticated to fall for such crass colour-coded buying patterns now.

But what about those firms of Image Consultants, who run colour coordination workshops that tell you if you're Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter, and then - based on your Season - what colours and shades you can and can't wear. I haven't been to one of these; I'd be interested to see what happens, but I don't fancy the idea of paying good money to be told what to wear by someone I've never met before, according to a bunch of colour charts and fabric swatches and a neat little theory. From what some people with experience of these courses have said, I'm a Spring, which means lots of pale colours and Positively No Black. Since this would virtually wipe out all the clothes I have (and there are a good few of those, let me tell you), I think I'll stay gloriously uncoordinated and present my own image in my own way. 'To Boldly Go', as someone else might have phrased it once upon a time.


'Black is the only naturally cool colour. Clothing of any other colour has to work on being cool,' Anne Wilson once said, and that's about all I know about dressing for success. Sad, isn't it? This probably means I'm what the Image Consultants call a 'February 30th' type: a bit of a lost cause.

It's a pretty subjective area really. Not only do different colours have different associations for different people, but they actually look different to different people as well: colour-blindness is an extreme case, but (as John's limited colour vision shows) there's good evidence that everybody sees colours slightly differently, and even that an individual's colour perception changes slightly during their life (this certainly happens with television sets). Then there are the effects that culture has on the associations of colours: white for death or black for death, blue for a boy and pink for a girl, red for communism, socialism or danger, and on and on. The point of which is to say that any advice about colour marketing or image consultancy is subjective, personal, and culture-specific. Handle with care.

There is one exception to this rule: decorating with green. Experiments have been done with rooms decorated completely in a single primary colour: everything in shades of red, or green, or blue, or yellow. Everyone shut in the red room went rapidly bananas and started banging on the walls and pleading to be let out. The yellow room was not much better, and although the blue room was tolerable, it was subtly disquieting if you spent too long in it. ('Oh the horror, the horror! More blue than any man could stand!' - thank you, Mr Lovecraft, you can go now.) Only the green room was pleasant enough to stay in for a long time, and was actually a pretty relaxing place to be in to boot. (Maybe that's why conventions have a Green Room for programme participants.) The theory is that mankind evolved up trees, and therefore finds the green leaf-like surroundings reassuring. Or, to put it another way, a green room is a place where a predator can't get you. (Unlike, I guess, a programme hall.)

So even that trait is human-specific. Don't expect your cat or dog to like the same colour schemes, and an intelligent alien, even if using eyes very like ours, would have very different tastes from our own. Why, if their minds were sufficiently different from ours, they might even like Pam's multi-coloured sequinned cap.


One wall of my bedroom used to be painted red. It didn't bother me, but lots of people asked how I could stand it. When I redecorated, it went to a sandy cream, which wasn't so noticeable. Maybe it recalled the dry plains out on the edge of the forests, places where there was little for a hunter-gatherer to eat and which weren't worth taking notice of. That makes me wonder what was out there that was so uninteresting that we never learned to see it at all...

Food, on the other hand, we learned all about as hunter-gatherers. It's brown. Sometimes it's green, or red, or yellow, or brownish shades of those colours, but basically it's brown. From that hunter-gatherer's point of view, it's interesting that red-green colour blindness doesn't affect your ability to notice food much - unless you're a green-veg-hater like me. We don't think highly of brown as a colour, but we still eat it. Brown's also 'not blue', and you don't get much in the way of blue food. Some cabbages will go blue if you cook them the 'right' way, with too alkaline a mixture; there are blueberries and (goes to look in the kitchen) that's about all. Lots of food gets packaged in blue, though; while our reaction to blue food is that it's probably nasty, blue wrapping is fine. Blue drinks, on the other hand, have been reserved as a secret ploy to extract a LoC from Brian Ameringen.

If all you know about dressing for success, Michael, is that black is cool, you aren't a lost cause, you're a potential goldmine, as far as an image consultant is concerned. They'd really hate your awareness that their job was subjective.

In any case, was black cool before the Velvet Underground?

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