The Secret Lives of Colour by British journalist Kassia St. Clair is one of those books that can be endlessly fascinating, chock full of strange anecdotes and unusual facts gleaned from her wide research.

But it can also be a bit overwhelming as well. Sometimes St. Clair (or her editor) doesn’t know when to rein herself in.


The book contains 75 chapters, each on a particular colour (or color as the U.S. edition has it). In witty and stylish prose St Clair then tells us about that hue’s importance in fashion, history, religion, etymology, cooking, art and economic trade, and much more.

Each chapter is like a little short story with a colour as the hero.

St Clair starts with white and works her way through the colour spectrum to black, stopping to peer at famous and obscure colours.

We pass through archil (“a deep red-purple dye made from lichens”); we have a look at gamboge, a luminous yellow (“the solidified sap of Garcinia trees, which come from Cambodia – or Camboje as it was once known…”). Cochineal, hematite and madder each get their chance alongside the more familiar colours.


A wonderful (but highly dubious) story is of a colour called Isabelline (“basically the colour of dirt”) named after a medieval queen whose Archduke husband went off to a battle in 1601. Queen Isabella vowed not to wash or change her underwear until he returned.

She didn’t know it would take three years. Hence grotty Isabelline.

A lot of the stories about early clothing dyes or pigments are just as gross. Back to gamboge for a minute. It had a strong effect as an emetic, and the workers who crushed the pigment had to race to the bathroom every hour.

Lots of dyes were made using animal’s urine, for its ammonia, and the garments were a bit whiffy.

Julius Caesar introduced the purple toga to Rome- in a colour called Tyrian purple – which Roman rulers reserved for themselves.

The problem was that the dye was painstakingly made from the glands of thousands of molluscs fermented in, again sterile urine. The togas were apparently gorgeous, but making them and wearing them must have been a pungent experience.


The book is perhaps best dipped into as individual chapters. Since St. Clair takes a thematic rather than a chronological view there is inevitably much repetition.

Also, lots of the chapters have the same arc: early discovery, commercial use, humorous anecdote, popularity and decline.

Let’s face it, not all colours have equally interesting stories to tell. We’d all like to be gold or Prussian blue, but somebody still has to be puce.

The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair, John Murray

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