Demystifying fashion colour coding across Europe…
He gazed down haughtily at me…from the thick folds of his sumptuous velvet purple cloak studded with rich gold embroidery, his white stockinged legs poised perfectly to flaunt his extravagant red block-heeled shoes. I locked eyes with Louis XIV. Was I was more enamoured by the craft of the artist who had painted this magnificent canvas oozing power, defiance and superiority from every inch or the sizzling persona of the French monarch himself? I couldn’t decide.
They say the dressing diktats of the royals defined fashion in the bygone era…and I was struck to note nobles in bold patterns and daring loud colours in several paintings from Louis XVI’s time. Women’s gowns, on the other hand, reflected soft, delicate pastels like peach, powder blue and cream. Or dark, luxurious indulgent hues like burgundy, emerald green and navy. So much colour!
Later that evening, standing outside the Opera House, as I scanned the busy office-goers scurrying around Paris’ buzzing commercial centre, all I could see was black, black and more black, some greys and browns, but largely black. What a shift! How did this happen? When did France, and most of Northern Europe redefine the fashion colour code…shunning the cheer of colours for the no-nonsense of neutrals, specially black?
Random googling revealed surprising facts…the ancient craft of dyeing and colour, originated in India as long back as 2,000 BC, and seeped through the Mediterranean into Europe during the 15th- and 16th-centuries, when the Ottoman empire was at its zenith. It was us Indians who gifted the world with rainbow colours…how boring everything would have been in black-and-white! How fascinating that tropical colours like indigo, purple and saffron, derived from materials that could not thrive in typical European climates, were considered precious commodities in that era, affordable only by the elite. For instance, purple was the rarest of colours, prepared by boiling thousands of marine snails in giant lead vats for days! No wonder it was the designated colour of royalty. My wardrobe has a lot of purple and Vikas can’t resist mauve ties and violet shirts…boy, am I glad that we weren’t born in that era. We would have been imprisoned or even killed for ‘crossing the coloured line’.
I’ve always wondered why black carries the distinction that it does and now I know. In the West, black has always kept a close association with solemnity, mourning, and sanctity. From the medieval era, when black became the colour for monks’ robes, to when the followers of the religious order started donating their old garments to the poor, the popularity of the colour rose. Maybe people were discouraged from wearing brighter colours, in favour of black cloth, which was easier and cheaper to produce locally. But that was then.
Fashion gurus believe that the real turning point came in the 19th century, when famous French impressionist painters started using black in their artworks to depict women’s fashion. 19th-century German poet Goethe, is said to have believed that “people of refinement avoid vivid colours”. In those days, people of his stature probably influenced fashion and colour choices irrevocably. But the real credit possibly goes to Chanel’s ‘little black dress’, which hit the ramp in 1926. It was because of her that black truly became the epitome of style, elegance, dignity, luxury, authority and power. And that’s how it stays till today. No wardrobe is complete without an essential touch of sophisticated black. What a journey from cheap to chic!
Passing by Louvre later, the queue of tourists was still thick in the evening. Here in Paris, where even tourists come with largely blacks outfits in their bags…I caught glimpses of deep purple sweaters, scarlet red scarves and neon pink nail paint. The overall mood in the city of lights, like in the rest of North Europe remains neutral…whites, greys, beiges, off-whites, olives, browns, but those shots of colour off and on, stand out like magnetic flashes in the dark. Fashion influences from lower down the continent, surely? From Portugal in the far west through Spain, Croatia, Italy, Greece and Turkey in the east, colour permeates not just wardrobes, but cityscapes, architecture, culture and food. The seas are greener. And the skies are bluer.
Such is the call of vibrancy…that even true-blue North Europeans are slowly getting comfortable with colours. The love affair with black, however, continues, timelessly!