Color is at the very heart of what we do at Les Belles Heures. Everything starts and ends with color, making it the most important medium in our narrative. The most suggestive also. A creamy, powdered pink tells the story of a languished morning in Panarea. A vibrant shade of green brings us to a pristine cove in Minorca. A deep, muted shade of blue suggests a diner on the shore of Stromboli.
Because Les Belles Heures is all about color, we wanted to dig deeper in the world of colors and embark on an ambitious journey down the history path. We'll start with blue because well, you know. Diego Armando Maradona iconic Buitoni Napoli shirt for winning season 86-87. Hockney's pools. Bill Cunningham's workwear moleskin jacket. Yves Klein. Kennedy's socks in August 62. Hokusai's waves. Kanye's Jesus Is King. Picasso's most elegant, deepest period. Michelle Pfeiffer's slip dress in De Palma's 1983 Scarface. Gerardo's Land Rover. Miro's dreams. Delon's terry blazer in the final scene of Plein Soleil. Stromboli, Cavallo, Lavezzi and Favignana. And, in between, the thousands shades of the sea.
Blue is everywhere as today's most preferred color. Far from being solely reduced to a matter of aesthetic preferences, it is the result of a very precise history combining religious, social, economical, political and cultural dimensions. Because there's no such thing as a transcultural, universal truth about color, let's question history to put some cultural perspective on blue, today's most acclaimed color.
The shy kid at the back of the class
The story of blue is one of a shy, invisible kid at the back of the class which becomes - thousands years later - the most popular of them all. Absent from the first cave paintings, blue is a very secondary color in all ancient societies whose symbolism is mainly articulated around red, black and white. It is an evil color for Romans who associate it with the uncivilised tribes from the North - Celts, Barbarians and Germans. Wearing blue is then considered eccentric - even decadent - and having blue eyes is a very disgraceful trait in the shadow of the Colosseum. Even if blue dying techniques are already a known process in ancient times - mainly from indigenous woad in Northern Europe and indigo in the Middle-East - the use of blue fabric in daily life remains very limited. Blue plays a very insignificant social and symbolic role at the time, at the notable exception of Ancient Egypt. There, blue is a beneficial color associated with birth, life, water and the heavens. Mainly obtained through the grinding of semi-precious lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, it protects from evil and is widely used in funeral art. This sidelined situation will last thousands of years for blue, up until divine intervention in the heart of the Middle Ages.
The figure of Mary
Blue starts gaining traction around the XIIth century on the back of a combination of factors all resulting in a fast and wide spread of the color in art, religion, heraldic, clothing and textiles. From a spiritual standpoint, blue starts to be associated with the sky and all heavenly things. The figure of Mary - previously represented in darker tones ranging from black to brown, purple, dark green or grey - is now almost exclusively wearing blue. Because the divine calls for the most refined pigment, it is the most expensive of them all - ultramarine, outremer or oltremare - which is used. More expensive than gold, it comes, as in Ancient Egypt, from Afghan lapis lazuli and gives deep, vibrant shades of blue. Used with parsimony, it is reserved to major works commissioned by the wealthiest patrons. As an act of devotion to the figure of Mary, French King Saint Louis introduces blue in his coats of arms - the famous golden fleur-de-lis on a blue shield. As the first ever French king to wear blue, he plays a major role in the diffusion of blue clothing throughout Europe at the time. Blue is now the color of kings, princes, nobles and patricians, and is ready for a whole new position in daily life.
Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, ca. 1472
A whole new era for blue is opened by two major events in religion and science in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries. First the Protestant Reform. Bringing black to the forefront of all social, artistic and religious habits as the most honest color, it progressively assimilates blue with this dignified black as opposed to the decadent shades of red, orange, purple and yellow, all considered impure. This step is decisive for the promotion of blue in both art and the mundanity of daily life. The painters of Northern Europe, despite their pretty limited color palette, make room for a very contained, moral blue. Johannes Vermeer makes it one of the most distinctive elements of his unique, unrivalled subtlety. Its lavish, most extensive use of ultramarine is not limited to blue colored objects though. He uses it to deepen a shadow here, enlighten a pot there.
Almost at the same time in England, Isaac Newton discovers the color spectrum. Placing blue at the heart of a new, natural color order, it excludes black and white as non-colors. From now on, color becomes measurable and colorimetry fastly spreads over arts and sciences. The theory of primary colors soon emerges which makes blue, along with red and yellow, the only pure colors from which all the others are drawn. Blue has now gained a new, official status among the hierarchy of colors, and is ready for the next step of its journey.
From left to right: Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (1663-1664) and View of Delft (1660-1661)
It's in the XVIIIth century that blue finally achieves hegemony. First through the liberalisation and mass usage of indigo. A pigment known for ages, indigo is subject to a strict import control to protect the fruitful commerce of indigenous woad and the related pastels. It becomes, in the second half of the XVIIIth century, a very widely used pigment in Europe on the back of the discovery of stronger varieties from the New World - mainly in the West Indies, Mexico and the Andean region - and largely contributes to the development of cotton garments, a fiber on which it bites easily and firmly. For sake of comparison, the golden age for Japanese Aizome - indigo dying - happens approximately at the same time under the Edo period (1603-1868). Then through the accidental discovery of the Bleu de Prusse around 1709 in Germany. An artificial pigment which allows for a whole new range of shades in both paintings and textiles, it fastly spreads all over Europe. In art and literature, the Romantic movement grants blue a whole new poetic dimension, making it the color of love, melancholy and dream. On the political side, the French Revolution makes blue - initially the color of the king as we already saw - the color of the newly proclaimed nation. The Royal French Guards, defecting the King to storm La Bastille with their blue uniforms in July 1789, introduce blue as the color of the defendants of the Republic, granting it a new political dimension it will keep until today.
From left to right: Unknown, The French National Guards, 1697 and the 2019 Défilé du 14 juillet
Blue is now everywhere, from the arts and literature to politics, religion and clothing as a very appealing color which conveys values ranging from freedom and dream to formalism and discipline. In clothing, after losing its prominent role to black for a few decades in the XIXth century, it makes a huge comeback through the wide field of workwear - from uniforms to denim and the bleu de travail - to become the color of the XXth century.
Levi Strauss blue denim jacket and trousers, ca. 1873
On workwear and uniforms
Tightly tied to clothing, blue has found in workwear and uniforms a very powerful medium to the hegemonic position it occupies today. From the Roman Empire where it was the attire of the working class, to the widespread use of blue military uniforms in the XVIIIth century and Levi Strauss 1873 first indigo dyed, blue denim work trousers, blue clothes have made their way to the daily of our societies. The navy blazer, most supposedly born in the 19th century in the Royal Navy, has now become a landmark of both men and women's wardrobes. Blue denim, a canvas initially used for work purposes in the far west, is now everywhere as the uniform of many generations and the bleu de travail, introduced during the Industrial Revolution on the back of a thriving textile industry, is a highly desirable piece of ready-to-wear all over the place. As for the navy suit, it is more than widely spread - almost a civilian uniform - from the trading floor to the board room, politics circles to any kind of so-called formal environment.
From left to right: the navy blazer by Prince Charles, the workwear jacket by Robert Rabensteiner and the navy suit by Giovanni Agnelli
The omnipresence of blue in today's societies has probably led to a progressive loss in its symbolism though. Being everywhere - in clothes, advertising, art and design - it is necessarily less significant and might represent a safe bet, consensual and easy. Which makes room for a more naturalistic approach to blue. A more organic, instinctive one that would relate to nature, aesthetic preferences and pop culture more than on any conceptual symbolism. A lighter, more joyful approach to the color of the sea. From which the very color of the Napoli SSC shirt introducing this piece is drawn. All together a unique combination of natural elements, aesthetic preferences and pop culture. In short, a fresher approach to blue made for playing with all those references from a long, very rich history. Because it all relates to this at the end right? Not caring that much. Having fun. Being true to ourselves. Diego, for sure, wouldn't argue otherwise.
This piece has been largely inspired by Michel Pastoureau's works and most notably Bleu, Histoire d'une couleur, published in 2002 at Les Éditions du Seuil.