We’re huge fans of Katy Kelleher’s writing on color. She recently wrote a spot-on piece for Vogue about Pantone’s odd “color of the year” choices. (Spoiler: a drab gray, paired with a pale yellow.)
Over at the Paris Review, she does in-depth profiles of color as part of a column named — get this — “Hue’s Hue.” We’ve shared a few of these nerdy delights as editor’s picks in the past; we especially loved recent ruminations on periwinkle, russet, and verdigris. The entire series is worth your time.
Periwinkle goes by many names. You might know her by one of her more fabulous monikers, like sorcerer’s violet or fairy’s paintbrush. In Italy, she is called fiore di morte (flower of death), because it was common to lay wreaths of the evergreen on the graves of dead children. The flower is sometimes associated with marriage (and may have been the “something blue” in the traditional wedding rhyme), sometimes associated with sex work (because of its supposed aphrodisiac properties) and also with executions. I grew up calling her vinca, a pretty little two-syllable name, taken from her proper Latin binomial, Vinca minor. My mother cultivated periwinkle in our forested Massachusetts backyard, encouraging the hardy green vines to trail over the boulders and under the ferns. I would have been delighted to know even a fraction of vinca lore back then, but I knew nothing except she was poison. I could eat the royal-purple dog violets, but I was not to pick the vinca. Vinca was poison and poison meant death.
Mary Stuart was six days old when she became the Queen of Scotland. Her precious body was guarded from that moment onward, moved like a pawn on a chessboard from one castle to another. Maybe the people would have loved her if she hadn’t been spirited away to be raised in France in 1548, but perhaps they wouldn’t have. Maybe Mary was doomed to always be loathed for her femaleness and her Catholicism. By the time she returned to the newly Protestant Scotland at age eighteen, she had spent over a decade in the French court, developing a taste for elaborate gowns and flashy jewels. She was tall and graceful, beautiful according to some accounts, but this didn’t endear her to the common people. While Mary was strutting around in fine lace and velvet and elaborate lockets, her people were told that God wanted them in chaste, sober clothes. Embroidery was deemed “unseemly” as were “light and variant hues in clothing, as red, blue, yellow and such like, which declare the lightness of mind.” Instead, the Scots were told to wear simple fabrics in “grave colour,” such as “black, russet, sad grey, or sad brown.”
This depressing list comes from a summary of the 1575 General Assembly of the Kirk, recorded in the Domestic Annals of Scotland. Although the upper classes continued to wear silks and velvets and pretty bright dresses, most people wore their sad rags. It was more practical, to be dressed in dark gray and black and brown. Life for the lower classes was hard. The clothing reflected this fact.
And yet, thrown in with those drab colors was russet. In this context, russet was both a general chromatic descriptor and a specific type of rough spun cloth, colored with a mixture of woad (a member of the cabbage family that was used to make a blue-gray dye) and madder (a similarly yellow-flowered herb whose roots could be turned into a pinkish-brown dye). Russet wasn’t a bright color, but it was at least more cheerful than “sad grey,” it had a bit more life than black. While Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly wore vivid scarlet under her black mourning clothes, her people dressed like dead leaves and gray stones. At their most vibrant, they could wear the color of rust, of dirty root vegetables, of aging fox fur.
Verdigris is the ur-turquoise. The name comes an Old French term, vert-de-Grèce (“green of Greece”). It is also sometimes known as “copper green” or “earth green,” since the pigment was commonly made from ground-up malachite or oxidized copper deposits. Certainly, verdigris owes a great debt to copper (symbol: Cu), as do the gemstones turquoise (chemical composition: CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8·4H2O) and malachite (chemical composition: Cu2CO3(OH)2). In America, we’re more likely to call these green-blue shades turquoise (from the Old French for Turkish, or “from-Turkey”) or Tiffany Blue (coined in 1845 with the publication of the Tiffany’s Blue Book catalogue and trademarked in 1998) than we are to invoke old-timey verdigris. Yet I prefer the odd old name, with its vivid consonants and slithery tail. The word sounds unstable, fittingly fluid for such a liquid hue.