On Being Colorful

Only some colors are colorful. To be full of color implies intensity and saturation. This is why colorful also means to be bright, lively, and expressive. It can also be euphemistic: if my language is a bit coarse, you might call it colorful, though if it was really improper you could say that I was being blue. 

Yet most blues are not colorful. The common tones are pale washes like an English sky, and deep blues from royal to midnight navy. In clothing, product and industrial design, the ubiquity of blue makes it a commonplace if not a default. Jeans, my favorite coffee mug, the ink in most of my pens. The abundance of blues makes them behave almost like greyscale in menswear: turn up in navy denim, a pale blue Oxford, and a mid-blue windbreaker and nobody bats an eye. Swap it out for banana yellow chinos, a lemon shirt, and buttercup raincoat and you’re immediately third-rate British superhero Bananaman. (Cancel that: I checked, and his outfit is largely blue.)

To dress colorfully is to announce yourself. In Elizabethan England, a 1574 statute insisted that purple silk, gold cloth, and sable furs were reserved for the king or queen’s immediate family, though you could enjoy purple discretely (lining your cloak, say) as a duke, marquise, or earl. Crimson or scarlet velvet was similarly restricted (though here the guest list stretched to lower end aristocrats: viscounts, barons, Knights of the Garter, and members of the Privy Council). In practice, these laws were frequently ignored and impossible to enforce: call it desperate social climbing or dressing for the job you want. But whether legitimate or simulated, color asserts status. (The decidedly less fabulous successor to the crimson velvet doublet is the brick red chino, beloved summertime garb of plump, bourgeois middle England.) 

Colors signal local affiliations, meaning that a shade can be neutral in one place and highly partisan in the next. (I remember yellow scarf getting me misidentified as a home fan in one English town; try a bright green or orange outfit in Belfast to experience the more serious version.)

People are also professionally colorful. Yellow rainwear is handy for sailors since it’s easily visible if you fall overboard. In 1974, London Fire Brigade introduced bright yellow pants to their uniform for similar reasons. There are red coats in old-world military uniforms thanks to the pitched battles of the Napoleonic era, where quick identification was life and death.

Above all, to be colorful is to say: “I am here.” This can be daring, aggressive, or simply jubilant; it can signal group affiliation or individuality. It can be thoroughly social (wanting to turn heads) or wholly self-absorbed (the absent-minded professor in an all-mauve outfit; the child fixated on orange). Men tend to be uneasy about color because they don’t want to stick out (this is why uniforms are fine, however garish), and they don’t want to draw the gaze of others (women, I suspect, don’t have this uneasiness because they know they’ll be scrutinized either way).

To be colorful is to speak freely. To be overheard, in contexts not of your choosing. Sometimes it pays to keep your peace. But before you commit to a monochrome life of Swedish minimalism or endless grey t-shirts, it’s worth finding your voice.

My friend Mordechai Rubinstein sees color everywhere. In chips of paint, nail polish, and the patina of old trucks, he once told me. His photographs home in on the glint of purple socks, a yellow vest, or paint-spattered overalls. What’s exceptional is that the colors hardly ever screech: they’re joyous, sincere, and utterly unforced. Being colorful, done right, is not shouting but singing.

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