A brief history of colors

Published On: January 18, 2019 08:50 AM NPT By: The Week Bureau

According to French color historian Michel Pastoureau, there is no transcultural truth to color perception. It is society that makes color, defines it and gives it meaning. The way we think of colors and things we associate with different colors today is very different to how people perceived them a few centuries back. This week, we explore the rich history behind a few colors and discover what each of these colors went through to reach their modern perceptions.

Although the color pink has been around the longest (Seriously, scientists discovered in June 2018 cyanobacteria with pink pigment – in Sahara Desert in Mauritania, West Africa – that they believe have been surviving for 660 million years. This makes pink the oldest-known color to humans) it didn’t have a name of its own in most parts of the world. Cultures and nations around the world – mostly the west – instead referred to this color as a lighter shade of red.

It was only in the 17th century that the western world came up with the name for this shade after it became a hit among the fashion enthusiasts of the time. But some nations like China and Japan have been using this color and referring to it with a particular name for a long time. Japan actually had seven different names for seven different shades of pink way before this color was “discovered” by Europeans.

When it first came in fashion (European fashion that is), pink was a genderless color that was very popular among both men and women – especially the aristocrats. It was viewed as a color that signified elegance, novelty, and aristocratic splendor. A century later, in the late 18th century, psychologists of the time actually recommended men who were into business to have their rooms colored pastel pink for a restorative mindset.

During the two world wars, this bright color seemingly disappeared for a few decades amidst cataclysmic atmosphere before resurfacing in the 1960s in a completely different light. Big companies now marketed this color as bubbly, frivolous, innocent, cute, harmless, and of the oppressed, color that should only be incorporated into items – mainly clothing and accessories – for women as men who were “hardened” after fighting in the war for such a long time couldn’t be seen in that (newly labeled) submissive color.

Since then, this color has been seen as cutesy, susceptible, unassertive, and the slavish kind of feminine by most people. But with the rise of the millennial mindset, more people are labelling and taking up this color as bold, daring, and gender neutral.

The color purple is often linked to royalty and luxury. This is because until a few decades ago, this color was exclusively worn or used just by royals all around the world. Some roman emperors and even Queen Elizabeth I had banned anyone outside of the royal family to wear or use this color. This color was so exclusively used by just the royals and the high upper class people that whenever a child was born in one of these families, they were literally referred to as a child from the purple.

The exclusivity of purple color was a result of how hard it was to make it. At the time, the only known source for the creation this color was Bolinus brandaris (a species of snail found only in the city of Tyre in Phoenicia – modern day Lebanon) and about nine thousand of these creatures were needed to create a single gram of this color. Because so much work went into the production of this color, the Phoenician traders charged very heavily for it and only the richest of the society could afford to buy this color and dye their belongings (mostly clothing) in this color.

At times, the citizens of the Byzantine Empire (the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages) also associated purple with gods and believed it to be color that belonged to the gods. Those kings and queens who believed themselves to be a descendants of gods also enforced strict rules about no one (other than themselves and their close family) being allowed to play with this color. Anyone who went against these rules was hanged immediately.

In the 1850s, William Henry Perkin, a student at the Royal College of Chemistry (London), discovered the first synthetic purple dye while he was trying to find an artificial and affordable way to make quinine – an expensive alkaloid that was used to treat malaria at the time. This discovery made the then 18-year-old Perkin very rich as a lot of companies bought the rights to reproduce this cheap way to make the color purple. This is how the color purple changed from an expensive and exclusive shade to one that is affordable.

A lot of people are still confused as to what was named first – the color orange or the fruit – and which one of them was actually named after the other because they resemble each other. According to journalist, designer, and art enthusiast Maria Mellor, it was definitely the fruit that acquired the name orange first. She writes in an article for Arts and Collections that the fruit was brought into Europe by Portuguese merchants from Asia in the 15th century. The Portuguese called this fruit laranja – distorting the original Sanskrit name of this fruit, naranga.

The word naranga later denoted both the color and the fruit orange in Sanskrit. Similarly, the word orange comes from the Anglo-Saxon and Old French word orenge whose first documented use in English was in the 13th century to refer to the fruit orange, whereas this word was used to describe the color orange about three centuries later, in the late 1500s. Before this, the color that is a mix between red and yellow was simply called reddish yellow or yellowish red in most parts of the world.

Even though it didn’t have a distinct and specific name for itself, the color orange has been used throughout the world for a very long time. Egyptian artists used this color to decorate tombs as early as 3100 BC and medieval artists used this shade to color their manuscripts. This color has been around in different Asian communities for a long time too. The color orange holds a lot of significance especially in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh cultures. In Hinduism, it represents purity, holiness, and religious abstinence. In Buddhism, it represents illumination and is often worn by monks and in Sikhism, orange represents the sense of belonging to one’s community.

Today, we associate orange with a lot of things like the autumn season, sunsets, and sunrises. Because this color is easily distinguishable, it’s also used in things like life jackets, and in attires for traffic police.

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