I’m a big fan of Avery Truffleman’s podcast series Articles Of Interest and in her latest episode she looks at colour throughout history and how the associations we have with certain colours were formed.
Colour has always been a signifier of class and before the advent of modern synthetic dyes wearing coloured clothes was a signifier of wealth. Dyes used to be expensive. Beautiful colours took time, skill, and expensive ingredients to make so having brightly coloured clothes used to mean you were a person of status. The brighter and richer the colour, the more expensive.
This however all changed with the advent of commercial green dyes made from….. Arsenic! Lovely, safe arsenic. But brightly coloured clothes were in such high demand that people were willing to put up with the rashes and sores that arsenic coloured dresses caused in order to be seen in that coveted bright green.
This dress in the collection of Toronto Metropolitan University- has tested positive for arsenic. It would probably do very very bad things to your skin if you put it on.
Shortly after this, William Perkin synthesised Mauve from coal-tar almost by mistake in his lab and unleashed a wave of new, affordable bright dyes. But as bright color becomes more affordable, it becomes less of a status symbol and considered even vulgar.
If you’re interested in how history has shaped our view on colour, Chromophobia is a great listen and it shows that the language of colour really depends on context.