Military terminology uses the term ‘colours’ to refer to the banners and distinctive garments that mark belonging to a regiment. Since a few years back, this interpretation was also adapted by urban culture and is used to designate the elements that mark belonging to a gang. These ‘colours’ imply sophisticated and hierarchical symbol systems such as the ones sported by the Hell’s Angels, originally war veterans, which are inexplicable for the rest of society. The most basic ones consist of a piece of clothing or accessory of a given colour, like the red of the Bloods or the blue of the Crips. Since for any gang classified as an organised criminal group’ by US law, these ‘colours’ can be used as incriminatory evidence in a trial, little by little ‘colours’ are disappearing from the streets.
But the use of colour in clothing to transmit information is as old as dyeing itself. After the excess and ostentation of the Catholic Church hierarchy, the Protestant Reformation presented its formal opposition and priests started wearing black. At the time, black had the same meaning of modesty as in Islam. Also due to that meaning, magistrates and civil servants will adopt black and, from the 19th century on, it would be the colour of the suits of powerful men. From then on, false modesty doesn’t go unnoticed by society and the perception of colour changes. Black will go from referring to, among other things, mourning, sadness, fear or evil to representing, today, chicness and elegance, even luxury. It loses its sense of austerity and humility to adopt the opposite. The feared ‘blousons noirs’ wouldn’t be seen in our days as a tragic threat, but as a group of glamorous men.
From negation to inclusion: the rainbow appears as an inclusive symbol in 1913 to represent world peace and it’s still used as such in Italy, with the word ‘Pace’ written over it. Although conceptually and formally very similar, it isn’t exactly equal to the gay pride flag, designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker and which is already part of MOMA’s design collection.
The industrial machinery keeps on coming up with new meanings for colours, in the same way in which they determined, in a gradual process spanning almost two decades (from the thirties to the forties), that pink was for girls and blue for boys. The documents proving that those colours used to belong exactly to the opposite gender (boys in pink) seem comical when observed today. But we are just part of another absurd convention. For the manufacturer it is more convenient to offer two models instead of just one: he can sell the same product twice to a family with a boy and a girl.
Colour doesn’t only define gender, but also social class. The French ‘bleu de travail’ designated workers’ clothes long before the term ‘blue collar’ was used for the first time in 1924. The concept was soon used as the opposite to ‘white collar’, which referred to office jobs. White, apart from representing cleanliness and hence a higher rank job, in Western societies has the ancient –and still current– meaning of purity. Romans had two different white categories for their togas: albus, or crude, and candidus, a lot brighter. Those who wanted to be part of the government wore the said ‘candid toga’, that’s where the term ‘candidate’ comes from.
Colour can be also used to point out and isolate, as in the case of the orange overalls that prisoners wear. This recent convention has been made popular by films and TV, since its use is very frequent during their transportation in the USA. But in fact, there’s a great diversity of penitentiary uniforms and in some states, orange is even forbidden, as it is used by prison emergency groups instead; both uses are miles away from the clothing sported by our beloved butane deliverymen.
“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways”
Still, it’s the absence of colour what is seen as the worst and is stigmatised as lack of character. In English, something ‘off colour’ is considered vulgar or obscene. The origin of the expression seems to come from the diamond industry, where a piece of no defined colour is deemed less valuable. Wilde already lamented this: “Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”