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It's a Colorful Life

Kassia St. Clair admits to being obsessed with color, but she believes we should all pay more attention to the complex hues around us, even if our eyes deceive us about what we're really seeing.

Photo of Ms. St. Clair by Colin Thomas/Shutterstock (Composite)

As the daughter of a London florist, Kassia St. Clair grew up surrounded by natural colors. Later, as a graduate student researching what women wore to 18th-century masquerade balls, she encountered a world of terms for colors that had long since faded from use but whose deployment once helped determine a lady's social status. Now an author and columnist for Elle Decoration, St. Clair has written The Secret Lives of Color, diving into the science, economics, and political history of 75 colors, from heliotrope to hematite, and absinthe to obsidian.

When you walk down the street with friends, and someone says, "Look at that great red hat," do you have to restrain yourself from saying "No, that's really vermilion"?

They are always asking me, "What color would you call this?" It's like constantly being tested. People are also disappointed to see that I sometimes just wear black like everyone else.

How did black become the go-to color for the urban intelligentsia?

This is not a modern phenomenon at all. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws regulated what people could wear, the idea being to make sure everyone visibly belonged to the right social stratum. Purples and reds, which were historically the most expensive dyes, were restricted to certain levels of society. People rising up the social ranks were frustrated that they weren't able to wear colors that they could afford but weren't allowed access to. But black wasn't part of the sumptuary system in many places, because the knowledge to create darker dyes came along fairly late in medieval Europe. So you were able to dye luxurious fabrics like velvet black. It was vanity: Young, wealthy merchants wanted to show that they had taste and could afford expensive things, and black remained fashionable because it is austere and different.

How else has color telegraphed political status?

In China, imperial yellow was a very difficult and expensive dye to create. Orange was chosen by the House of Orange because of the name, but orange was also a rare fruit. The imperial purple reserved for royalty was made using a particular mollusk. At one time, these poor mollusks were hunted to near extinction to get the dye, which was worth its weight in gold, literally.

Have our perceptions of colors' significance changed over time?

The classic example is blue and pink. If you go back just over a century, blue was the girl's color and pink was the boy's. Now that feels alien to us because we're so inculcated with the belief that pink is feminine, but a century ago, people are saying exactly the opposite—that blue is more feminine and pink is more martial.

Can the name of a color influence our reaction to it?

Completely. During the French Revolution, you have new fabrics in various shades with amazing names like Sweet Sighs and Peasant's Follies. Electric blue has been associated with the idea of modernity and the future since the Victorian Age and somehow that association has remained, which is kind of odd because most people's experience of a light bulb is not blue.

How does texture factor into our sense of a color?

Ancient writers wrote about how a glossy black was benign and luxurious; it was able to reflect the light so it had a sort of glamour and grandeur. But a matte, light-sucking black has pretty much always been seen as a bad thing.

Certain hues are man-made, yet the idea of copyrighting one seems odd. Can somebody own a color?

It's a really interesting question that's been in the news recently. In 2014, an extreme black, vantablack, was created by British scientists who granted exclusive artistic access to Anish Kapoor. This caused a bit of tension in the art world, and insults were traded back and forth, because it was seen as anathema that one artist could possess the exclusive right to one color. Certainly my mind and my soul revolt against someone owning a particular color, but people do find ways of getting around it.

We now know that the classical columns and statuary of the ancient world were not austere white objects but gaudily colored. Why does that disturb people so much?

Because it's so bound up with our idea of the classical and our ideas of tastefulness and architecture. None of these gorgeous columns that you see in any Western capital today are painted green and red and purple and blue as they would have been if they really harkened back to our ancestors. So I think it's unsettling and a bit uncanny for people to think of those underpinnings of our ideas of classical good taste being turned upside down.

Our first lesson in the science of color may be when our parents tell us that water isn't blue, but simply reflects the sky. What else should we all know about our experience of color?

The bad news is that what we're actually seeing isn't real. We are really bad at detecting true color because when we look at the world, our brains interpret what we see and apply a lot of information that alters it. But the brain is just trying to help us process information as quickly as possible. We've evolved, to an incredible degree, to be able to pick out useful bits of information, whether or not they reflect reality. But it can be scary to learn how poorly we see reality or process color as it should be seen.

Like the notorious online dress debate.

That's the most obvious example. In 2014, half of us saw a blue-and-black dress and half of us saw a white-and-gold dress because the photograph wasn't very good and didn't have a lot of visual cues to help us interpret the conditions of ambient light. Half of the people thought, "We reckon this is in an environment with strong light," and so their brains filled in to correct for that. The other half thought, "Maybe it's in a dark changing room under poor LED," and their brains applied a filter to correct for that. That's how an internet full of people saw the same thing in very different ways.

OK, What's your favorite color?

Ultramarine. I love the color, and I love the story of this semiprecious rock that was mined in Afghanistan and taken across the Silk Road and then was used as a symbol of the Virgin Mary in almost all Western art. The passion that so many artists had for it, the struggle they had getting it, and the vast amounts they were prepared to pay for it make it a very effective shorthand for the importance of color.

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