The colour purple
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries lately. I’ve also been watching a lot of ‘30 Rock’, but that’s probably not relevant to this week’s column. I’ll stop right there and not talk about Liz Lemon’s lack of sartorial nous.
One of these documentaries has been ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’ series on BBC4. Presented by the easy-on-the-eyes Professor James Fox (who somehow manages to wear the same black suit jacket/white shirt combo while scrambling though ancient tombs as well as strolling through the Tate), it’s an exploration of the world through the colours gold, blue and white.
Although the series has just ended, I highly recommend that you watch it online if you have any interest in art, history or indeed, fashion. It is a very stylish program. If the majority of television is chewing gum for the eyes, ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’ is a palate of petit fours; beautiful, light, easy to digest and not substantial enough to be totally satisfying.
The history of fashion can also be told through colour. However, which colour jostles for precedence in the pecking order? Colours come and go, as the wearers are led by trends that are both ephemeral and temporal. Taste, circumstance and the dictates of higher-ups make the importance of colours fluctuate like an Olympic medal table.
For my money, I think that the most important colour (or at least, the most important colour for the past few thousand years anyway) is purple. Not just any purple. A kind of blue-tinged burgundy most recently seen on devotees of MAC’s Cyber lipstick, a baroque punk shade that is redolent of both privilege and rebellion. It is called Tyrian purple.
Also known as imperial purple, Tyrian purple was worth its weight in silver and was highly prized. Unlike other dyes, weathering and sunlight only makes it stronger. It’s either an irony or a sublime coincidence that the dye came from predatory mid-sized sea snails and ended up being worn by royalty and politicians - although that might just be a mix of cynicism and historic revisionism shining through.
Tyrian purple was so important that it was subsidised by the Byzantine court. Once a man became a Roman senator, this robes were run through with one stripe of pure Tyrian purple. The ancient method of processing this dye has long been lost, along with all the principled Roman senators, but we do know from writings that it was, apparently, incredibly smelly.
It is such a unique hue that it cannot be represented on a computer screen. Indeed, the most accurate versions of the colour, a colour so special and unique that it cannot be fully replicated ever again, can be seen on the walls of millennia-old basilicas - not on the catwalk.
It’s like the old order of gods, kings and the idealistic politician - it’s gone, all gone. What is left of it and of Tyrian purple is nothing but a bland pastiche, weak imitation and blatant bastardisation. That’s worth a documentary.