Reflections On Colour, Gender & Dress
Singer Regina Spektor is surely right to describe blue as ‘the most human colour’.[i] It is the colour of our veins, literally and figuratively, if you happen to be born into High Society. The colour of our life force, blue is the shade of physical pain, emerging stubbornly as a bruise, and at our end, it is the colour of cold and death. Blue is a bad mood and the luminous glow in elderly women’s coiffures. It is the colour of Man and, by consequence, the predominant colour of many national flags. Presently, blue is also the colour of a large cock that sits atop the fourth plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square, which has kept everyone guessing – I’ll leave it for the reader to determine whether there is connection between the last two sentences. Red aside, few colours have so many associations with the human life cycle as blue.
But for all of its appeal, blue has never really been that fashionable. How many blue cars do you see on the roads? How many supermarket products are packaged predominantly in blue? In how many of your friends’ and relatives’ houses does blue feature as the main decorative colour? The same is true of dress. Elvis Presley sang about his blue suede loafers and the fictional Miranda Priestly fixated over cerulean blue belts in The Devil Wears Prada, but these are accessories. Aside from denim, blue is an accent colour, rarely the main colour of a garment, for either sex. If, occasionally, blue does feature as a dominant colour in dress, it is probably as an overcoat – and worn for only short and specific periods – or, barely recognisable. Elizabeth II, who has long favoured single-colour garments, usually wears blue so pale that it appears gray, white or lilac from afar. Norman Parkinson’s ‘Blue Trinity’ portrait of the Queen, Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, taken to commemorate the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday in 1980, is an exception that proves the general rule. At the other end of the spectrum, men who wear blue to work, or as a trendy alternative to Black Tie, tend to choose shades so dark, they appear black. Some stylists actually advise men to wear dark blue at a Black Tie function, as it can look ‘richer’ than black in reduced light.[ii] The only person whom I can think of that habitually wore blue was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her medium blue power suits were almost as iconic as her Launer handbags.
Out Of The Blue
But blue now seems to be omnipresent. In recent months, photographs of trendy blokes wearing double-breasted blue jackets (usually with white buttons) have been appearing on an almost daily basis on Tumblr and Flickr, ever since it became certain that this summer would require light-weight clothing. Not surprisingly, then, blue jackets were conspicuously ubiquitous among the male celebrities who made guest appearances at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. So much so, that Bradley Cooper and Gerard Butler arrived looking virtually identical – kudos to them, they laughed off their sartorial similitude with a ‘selfie’: what else!?[iii] To truly confirm blue’s status as the colour of Man, Trafalgar Square’s fountains were illuminated in blue to celebrate the birth of Prince George, along with other world landmarks.[iv]
But this is not a single sex story. For, when said prince was presented to the baying press, both of his parents wore blue. And if further proof were needed of women’s interest in blue, celebrity-cum-fashion blogger Lindsay Lohan has recently posted about this summer’s ‘blue crush’, with designers from Marc Jacobs to J.Crew making prominent use of the colour in their womenswear collections.[v]
The Blue-Ribbon Club
So what accounts for the burgeoning interest in blue? As ever, part of the answer lies in the past. In the West, blue has always been singled-out as a special colour due to its many positive associations, not least faith, justice and loyalty.[vi] This surely explains why today’s fictional heroes are often clothed in blue – Tintin, the Tracey brothers (Thunderbirds), Lion-o (Thundercats), Superman. Has there ever been a blue-clad villain? – and why blue became the popular colour in heraldry. Lords chose blue to brand their families and their lands. For anointed rulers, this meant their kingdoms as well; hence the ubiquity of blue in many national flags today. The colour’s association with gendered power, which, ironically because of its traditional associations, bespeaks exclusivity, acquisition and even aggression, may explain why its popularity has never really been widely reflected in dress, or cars, or packaging. Until now, that is. The colour’s association with gendered power would help to explain its present ubiquity.
Discussion about the sexes and their social significance has been a persistent theme in recent media, which has included debates that have asked why men do not wear high heels (hosted by The London College of Fashion)[vii] and books that argue women, and men who think like them, will soon rule the corporate roost.[viii] Within this charged climate, it is conceivable that men might wish to regain possession of ‘their’ colour. After the pocket squares, elbow patches, cigars and boutonnières, that many men have experimented with over the past eighteen months, their re-association with blue could be another subtle way of proclaiming their masculinity. The water illuminations at Trafalgar Square that heralded the birth of Prince George seemingly sealed the deal.
But if men are increasingly drawn to blue because of its gendered associations, women – perhaps inspired by Margaret Thatcher, whose hairstyle and choice of bag have been much copied following her death – appear to be doing the same.[ix] After all, why should such a potent colour be monopolised by men? If women are trying, however subconsciously, to de-gender blue, they also did well out of the royal birth. Two future kings and a queen all clad in blue made a striking sartorial statement that the colour can be gender neutral and still retain its powerful associations (granted, the royal connection helped). But, if women are moving in on blue, Walter Pfeiffer’s ‘Pink Lady’ shoot with Cara Delvingne in British Vogue‘s September Issue, suggests they are simultaneously reluctant to give up possession of ‘their’ colour.[x] And it should be noted that the lights at Trafalgar Square were primed to turn pink if the Duchess of Cambridge had given birth to a daughter.
The question I have, then, is this: will men seek to wear more pink, or will the colour’s historic associations prove too daunting to face?
[i] From ‘Blue Lips’ (2009).
[ii] For example: P. Marshall, ‘Classic Tuxedos (Dinner Suits)’. http://www.blacktieguide.com/Classic/Classic_Tuxedos.htm. Accessed: 18-viij-2013.
[iii] R. Martin, ‘Gerard Butler On Bradley Cooper’s Wimbledon Suit: ‘It Was Embarrassing’. www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/celebrity/543505/gerard-butler-on-bradley-cooper-s-wimbledon-suit-it-was-embarrassing.html#index=1. Accessed: 18-viij-2013.
[iv] M. Reynolds, ‘The world turns blue to welcome the Prince’. http://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/417028/The-world-turns-blue-to-welcome-the-Prince. Accessed: 18-viij-2013.
[vi] M. Pastoureau, ‘Les couleurs medievales: systemes de valeurs et modes de sensibilite,’ in idem, Figures et Couleurs: études sur la symbolique et la sensibilité médiévales (Paris, 1986), 40.
[viii] For example: J. Gerzema & M. D’Antonio, The Athena Doctrine: How men (and women who think like them) will rule the future (San Francisco, 2013).
[ix] K. Young, ‘Margaret Thatcher, the beauty icon’. http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/Article/TMG9978934/1548/Margaret-Thatcher-the-beauty-icon.html. Accessed: 10-iv-2013.
[x] F. Burns & W. Pfeiffer, ‘Pink Lady’, Vogue (UK) (September, 2013), 326-37.