For colour connoisseurs everywhere author Kassia St Clair should already be a familiar name. Her regular column in Elle Decoration magazine has run since 2013, each one devoted to the history, associations and, of course, visual delights of a specific colour. Now this fascinating series has been expanded into a book, The Secret Lives of Colour. It’s a must for anyone interested in colour, decorating, but also language, culture and art.
The beautiful hardback presents the stories of 75 hues, grouped as though you are looking through a prism. Within the general categories of ‘blue’, ‘green’ and ‘red’ you’ll find Kassia’s very specific choices, all selected for the power of their story. You’ll learn why we think of ‘scarlet women’ and ‘Imperial purple’ as well as how brown played a key role on the battlefield.
Kassia’s background was originally in historical costume – she studied 18th Century Women’s Dress at both Bristol and Oxford. Her eye for historical quirks that have influenced how we view colour today shines through, as does her interest in how we describe colour. Take a look down the content list of the book and you’ll see not just ‘Pink’, but entries on Baker-Miller pink, Mountbatten pink, puce, fuchsia and amaranth. After reading this book you’ll never think black is merely black, but encompasses kohl, obsidian, charcoal and jet.
The Secret Lives of Colour also covers the science of how the eye sees colour, but in a way that also draws on the less precise matters of perception, via a mention, of course, of that blue and gold dress. But for us the real fascination lies in the stories behind the hues, and the cultural tidbits one can learn along the way, on every page right down to the bibliography. Why should canny waitresses wear red? What did fashion maven Diana Vreeland say when she saw the ‘Think Pink’ routine in Funny Girl, supposedly based on herself? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair, £20, published by John Murray