White, Red, Green, Yellow, Purple and Blue

Read an article from issue 1 of THR, a rip-roaring expedition through the classic Victorian thriller THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

Ah, the unflinching joy of monochrome dressing. But to what effect? Author EMILY KING looks into single-colour outfits in art and discovers women being pigeonholed and men revealing their identity.

Women, beware wearing red! It might set off your skin beautifully, but it will put you at risk of becoming the focus of bad art. The Woman in Red, a rom-com from 1984, represents a sorry low in the career of the actor/director Gene Wilder. How could anyone who had anything to do with the comic masterpiece The Producers have sunk so far? And ‘The Lady in Red’ is, of course, a dreadful pop song by Chris de Burgh from 1986 that continues to be played with grating frequency. You may think that song is revolting, even though you can only recall the wailed ‘Laydeee in Reeeed’ of the chorus. Read the lyrics and you’ll discover it’s worse than you imagined. ‘I’ve never seen so many men ask you if you wanted to dance,’ croons de Burgh. ‘I have been blind,’ he laments, ‘I hardly know this beauty by my side.’ The song’s subject discovers his love for his ‘lady’ only after she’s become an object of general male desire. It’s enough to make you shred every red garment you own, although possibly we should just be happy that the ’80s are long gone.

In green you might become the object of a better cultural product, but at what price? In The Woman in Green, a Sherlock Holmes film involving severed fingers and elaborate blackmail, the green-clad character is the dastardly hypnotist Lydia Marlowe. In a film where most of the female characters wind up murdered and mutilated, the mere fact of her survival is enough to say, ‘not to be trusted’. The point is hammered home with hue.

Thank God for the woman in purple, not in a title this time, but in the opening of Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning’.

‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,’ is a line that has always made me cringe.

Why should battiness be the province of the old? But at least the woman, who spends her pension on ‘brandy and summer gloves’, refuses to be merely an object of pity, fear, desire or distrust.

In The Woman in White, the character with the preference for that most innocuous of shades is the frail, doomed Anne Catherick. Her mysterious entrance early in the proceedings creates an atmosphere of unease that tinges the entire story, yet in terms of the plot she remains a marginal figure. Whether it’s colour, beauty or intelligence, she’s defined by what she lacks. She is a pitiful object, nothing more.

Change the woman’s clothes to black and you arrive at Susan Hill’s horror novel. Written in 1983, but in the style of the Gothic novels of two hundred years previous, The Woman in Black is a ghost story spun around parental anxiety. The title character may be wearing the opposite shade to Anne Catherick, but she is likewise more emblem than person. The spirit of a bereaved mother, the black-clad woman embodies the uncomfortable truth that birth brings with it the constant possibility, and certain eventuality, of death.

A thought on the mixed-up symbolism of monochrome clothes occurred to me recently when I found myself in a karaoke bar-cum-brothel in Shanghai. All I can say in defence of such a visit is that a Londoner’s instincts go gloriously awry in China, and can lead to the odd mishap. The place was staffed by women in ersatz white wedding dresses with numbers on their hips. Dotted among them were a few in the same dress but in red. Another handful wore black. All were tagged with numbers. I got the sense that the different colours of the dresses changed their function into something like gambling tokens.

Sat watching or talking among themselves were the male clientele, mostly in black suits, with the occasional flash of bright casuals. The venue is used by party members and businessmen, I was told, as a place to close deals. It represented an extreme and unpleasant distillation of a general truth. For a man to wear colour is to communicate identity (party man? playboy?), while for a woman it is an identifier. Is she a madonna? A whore?

Compare women in given colours with their male counterparts and their sorry position is striking. The best-known fictional man in white is Sidney Stratton, the protagonist of the 1951 Ealing Comedy The Man in the White Suit. 

A young scientist, he comes up with a fabric he believes will never get dirty or wear out: to demonstrate his invention he takes to wearing a suit made of the bright white cloth. He soon attracts the hostile attention of textile workers who feel he will kill their trade. Things don’t turn out well for him, but at least the white he wears is a reflection of his ideas rather than what he symbolises to others.

The men in Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, are agents tasked with supervising extraterrestrial beings on earth. OK, the film is as daft as a brush, but nonetheless it is a case of shade of dress being used to indicate agency not objecthood.

The members of the Blue Man Group express their commitment to camp wordless theatrics with body paint.

The Man in Purple is not just old and batty. He’s the Pope.

Returning to The Woman in White, it’s unfair not to mention that, although Anne Catherick is all passivity and victimhood, the book does contain a truly great female character.

Yes, Collins did have to make Marian Halcombe ‘ugly’ in order to allow her to be brilliant, but brilliant she is and the novel’s most compelling chapters are written from her point of view. The colour of Marian’s clothing is mentioned only once. On the first evening that Walter Hartright dines at Limmeridge House he notes that she is dressed in a ‘delicate primrose yellow colour which matches so well with a dark complexion and black hair’. Rather than being simply a woman in yellow, it is made clear that Marian is a woman who chooses to wear the colour to great effect.

EMILY KING is the author and editor of books including a monograph of art director duo M/M Paris and Peter Saville’s 2003 tome Designed by Peter Saville. She is based in Camden.

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