Color and Ornament

Home Circle (Nashville, Tenn, 1856) offers us a look at “Color and Ornament” in dress including that for millinery, which is found below in bold.

Having sought to free the figure from some of the trammels which, much to its detriment, fashion has so capriciously imposed, we may briefly refer to the assistance which the face may receive from color judiciously employed: —not carmine and pearl-powder, gentle reader, but colored draperies and accessories.

It is at once seen that, of the three primary colors, red and yellow are not of equal intensity, and that blue is very much less brilliant than either: also that the secondary colors (orange, purple, and green, each composed of two primaries) are weaker still; and that the tertiarios and broken colors are lowest of all. Thus we have three distinct classes of colors, of three degrees of intensity, and the components of each class having proportionate relative values. Each color, too, has a variety of tones when mixed with white, or of shades when mixed with black. But any given tone will appear lighter than it really is, when contrasted with a darker shade of the same

color; or darker, when placed beside a lighter tone. “When two different colors are placed together, not only will the light shade appear still lighter by contrast, but the hue of each will be considerably modified; each will become tinged with the “complementary” color of the other. This requires some explanation. If the eye be for some time fixed upon one of the primitives, (say red,) there will be seen another color, (green in this case,) formed of the two remaining colors, and which will be seen for a few moments, even after the exciting cause is removed. Thus, after gazing upon a bright yellow, violet will be called up, which is composed of blue and red; blue in its turn creates orange, which results from a union of red and yellow. The secondary colors are not often vivid enough to create an actual spectrum, though their influence is still considerable: thus green produces a tendency to see red, and therefore red will look more brilliant when seen after, or in contact with, green, than with any other color; and so with the rest. These are said to be ” complementary” or “compensating” colors; and in all cases form the most brilliant, as they are the most natural, contrasts. We quote from M. Chevreul a few examples of the changes produced upon each other by two colors in juxtaposition:

“Red and white.—Green, the complementary of red, is added to the white. The red appears more brilliant and deeper.

“Orange and white. — Blue, the complementary of orange, is added to the white. The orange appears brighter and deeper.

“Green and white.—Red, the complementary of green, is added to the white. The green appears brighter and deeper.

“Blue and white. — Orange, the complementary of blue, is added to the white. The blue appears brighter and deeper.”

The changes are greater when black is substituted for white:

“lied and black.— Green, uniting with the black, causes it to appear less reddish. The red appears lighter, or less brown, more oranged.

“Orange and black.—Blue uniting with the black, the latter appears less rusty, or bluer. The orange appears brighter and yellower, or less brown.

“Green and Mack.—Red uniting with the ] black, the latter appears more violet or reddish. The green inclines slightly to yellow.

“Blue and black.—Orange unites with the black, and makes it appear brighter. (?) The blue is lighter—greener, perhaps.”

Let us see the effect of analogous colors upon each other r

“1. Take red, and place it in contact with orange-red, and the former will appear purple, and the latter become more yellow. But if we put the red in contact with a purple-red, the latter will appear bluer, and the former yellower, or orange. So that the same red will appear purple in the one case, and orange in the other.

“2. Take yellow, and place it beside an orange-yellow: the former will appear greenish, and the latter redder. But if we put the yellow in contact with a greenish-yellow, the latter will appear greener, and the former more orange. So that the same yellow will incline to green in the one case, and to orange in the other.

“3. Take blue, and put it in contact with a greenish-blue: the first will incline to violet, and the second will appear yellower. But put the blue beside a violet-blue, and the former will incline to green, and the latter will appear redder. So that the same blue will in one case appear violet, and in the other greenish.

“Thus we perceive that the colors which painters term simple or primary, — namely, red, yellow, and blue, — pass insensibly, by virtue of their juxtaposition, to the state of secondary or compound colors. For the same red becomes either purple or orange, according to the color placed beside it; the same yellow becomes either orange or green; and the same blue, either green or violet.”

It must not bo supposed that because yellow and violet look well together, therefore any face will look well beside them; or that because blue is a cool color, it will harmonize with unimpassioned features. On the contrary, the idea is, that in every type of complexion some tint predominates, and with this tint the drapery must either contrast or harmonize. M. Chevreul instances the two extreme classes, — the light-haired and the dark-haired. In the former, the blue eyes are

the only parts which form a contrast with the ensemble; the hair, eyebrows, and flesh-tints being all of one general hue, so that the harmonies of analogy prevail. In the latter, not only do the white and red tints of the skin contrast with each other, but with the hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and eyes; so that here the harmonies of contrast prevail. Now, as orange is the basis of the tint of blondes, skyblue, which is the complementary of orange, will be found the most suitable color; and, for a similar reason, yellow and orange-red accord well with dark hair, while blue is the most unsuitable color that can be chosen. But we quote further examples, verbatim:

“Rose-red cannot be put in contact with the rosiest complexions without causing them to lose some of their freshness. It is necessary, therefore, to separate the rose from the skin in some manner; and the simplest manner of doing this, without having recourse to colored materials, is to edge the draperies with a border of tulle, which produces the effect of gray, by the mixture of white threads which reflect light, and the interstices which absorb it. A delicate green is favorable to all fair complexions which are deficient in rose, and which may have more imparted to them without inconvenience. But it is not as favorable to complexions that are more red than rosy, nor to those that have a tint of orange mixed with brown, because the red they add to this tint will be of a brick-red hue. In the latter case a dark-green will be less objectionable than a delicate green. Violet is one of the least favorable colors to the skin, at least when it is not sufficiently deep to whiten it by contrast of tone. Blue imparts orange, which is susceptible of allying itself favorably to white, and the light flesh-tints of fair complexions, which have already a more or less determined tint of this color. Orange is too brilliant to be elegant: it makes fair complexions blue, whitens those which have an orange tint, and gives a green hue to those of a yellow tint. Drapery of a lustreless white, such as cambric muslin, assorts well with a fresh complexion, of which it relieves the rose color; but it is unsuitable to complexions which have a disagreeable tint, because white always exalts all colors. Black draperies, lowering the tone of the colors with which they are in juxtaposition, whiten the skin; but if the vermilion or rosy parts are to a certain point distant from the drapery, it will follow that, although lowered in tone, they appear, relatively to the white parts of the skin contiguous to this same drapery, redder than if the contiguity to the black did not exist.”

Our author then takes up the bonnet,—a delicate subject, and one that requires to be handled with care; but a subject also of such consideration that he has very properly “given his whole mind to it.” And first, of the fairhaired type:

“A black bonnet with white feathers, with white, rose, or red flowers, suits a fair complexion. A lustreless white bonnet does not suit well with fair and rosy complexions. It is otherwise with bonnets of gauze, crape, or lace; they are suitable to all complexions. The white bonnets may have flowers, either white, rose, or particularly blue. A light blue bonnet is particularly suitable to the light-haired type; it may be ornamented with white flowers, and in many cases with yellow and orange flowers, but not with rose or violet flowers. A green bonnet is advantageous to fair or rosy complexions. It may be trimmed with white flowers, but preferably with rose. A rose-colored bonnet must not be too close to the skin; and if it is found that the hair does not produce sufficient separation, the distance from the rose-color may be increased by means of white, or green, which is preferable. A wreath of white flowers in the midst of their leaves, has a good effect.”

Secondly, of the dark-haired type:

“A black bonnet does not contrast so well with the ensemble of the type with black hair as with the other type; yet it may produce a good effect, and receive advantageously accessories of white, red, rose, orange, or yellow. A white bonnet gives rise to the same remarks as those which have been made concerning its use in connection with the blonde type, except that for brunettes it is better to give the preference to accessories of red,; rose, orange, and also yellow, rather than to blue. Bonnets of rose, red, and cerise, are suitable for brunettes, when the hair separates as much as possible the bonnet from the complexion. White feathers accord well with

red; and white flowers with abundance of leaves have a good effect with rose. A yellow suits a brunette very well, and receives with advantage violet or blue accessories: the hair must always interfere between the complexion and the head-dress. It is the same with bonnets of an orange-color more or less broken, such as chamois. Blue trimmings are eminently suitable with orange and its shades. Whenever the color of a bonnet does not realize the intended effect, even when the complexion is separated from it by large masses of hair, it is advantageous to place between the latter and the bonnet certain accessories, such as ribbons, wreaths, or detached flowers, &c, of a color complementary to that of the bonnet: the same color must also be placed on the outside of the bonnet.”

Of course, the remarks here applied to bonnets furnish many hints for general application. It is not wise to wear more than two decided colors at the same time, and they must be not only harmonious contrasts, but well balanced as to strength or intensity; and a “startling effect” must be always avoided. Broken and semi-neutral shades will be found very effective as a sort of ground-work for brighter tints, which should be used sparingly, as in nature. The proportion of red and yellow in a landscape is very small, the prevalent hues being varieties of green, and the neutral tint of hills and distant objects; while the cool, calm, ethereal blue bends gratefully over all. Or you have the yellow broom and purple heather at your feet, but there is little color elsewhere; the few trees visible wear sober russet; above are the gray rocks, with their deep, dark rifts; and beyond, in the blue distance, are “the everlasting hills,” the heavy clouds dragging wearily against their summits. It is the same throughout the scale: the brightness of a flower is relieved by a proportionately large mass of leaf, and that again by the brown soil on which it rests: the bright tinting of the sea-shell is toned off to a colorless edge, and is relieved by the sombre hue of the outer side; and in the rainbow,—unique in its brilliant coloring, —the tints blend into each other so gradually, that it is impossible to say where one ends and another begins. Mr. Ruskin goes so far as to say, that “color cannot at once be good and gay. All good color is in some degree pensive: the loveliest is melancholy.” Without venturing quite so far, we confess to a partiality for sober tinting. But to return. Gray has the peculiarity of looking well in any contrast, giving something of brightness to more sombre colors, and subduing the glare of those more brilliant. Black and white are considered neutral, and, as we have seen, are seriously affected when brought in contact with other colors. The effect of black drapery is to diminish objects, and of white to enlarge them; so that the former ought to be avoided by persons—especially ladies—of diminutive stature, and the latter by those who are specially favored in measures of length and breadth.

As to ornament, young people especially cannot dress with too much simplicity. A pretty face looks best devoid of ornament, just as a jewel sparkles brightest in a plain setting; and a face that is not pretty will gain nothing from bedizenment, but may gain much from a tasteful arrangement of the hair, &c. In this question of hair, fashion allows unusual latitude, every one being at liberty to employ the style that best becomes her, whether curls, braids, or their endless combinations and varieties, by which the oval of the face may be assisted, more or less of the forehead and cheek displayed, apparent breadth given, or height added: in all this, individual taste has free scope. Flowers are appropriate. Sashes have always a graceful effect; that is, of course, when the body and skirt are of one color. Jackets are inadmissible on the score of taste, but are favored by considerations of economy. Jewellery is only suitable to the middle-aged, and even by them should be worn in moderation: nothing looks worse than an excessive display of rings, chains, and baubles. All studs and colored buttons are inappropriate: these belong exclusively to male attire. The hanging (inner) sleeves now so much worn are exceedingly elegant, both in their shape and the designs generally worked upon them. Embroidered and other white trimmings serve to mark the borders or edges of the various parts of the dress, and may be used freely with good effect, provided the several portions correspond with each other.

Dress ought to be so contrived as to set off the person to the best advantage; but in many cases this becomes a secondary consideration, and the person mainly serves to set off the dress. Some people carry their clothes, and some wear them; just as some men feed at dinner-time, and gentlemen quietly dine. Others seem to think that in order to dress well, it is necessary to follow closely every change in the fashions; whereas the bestdressed people follow these changes at just sufficient distance to escape singularity, and rather object to a “faultless perfection” in their outfit. A gentleman is as remote from the fop as from the sloven; and a true lady will see that she is neither over, nor under, nor tastelessly dressed. Ilerrick says prettily:

“A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a playfulness.
A lawn aboat the shoulder thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly;
A winning ware, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility;
Do more bewitch mo than when art
Is too precise in every part,”

It is not to be supposed that this is an apology for a slattern: it is merely the poetical way of expressing a preference for graceful simplicity over a too rigid perfection.

Perhaps we owe some apology to the ladies for picking their dress to pieces so completely. The alterations we have suggested are modifications of the prevailing mode rather than sweeping changes: the general design—out line—of modern female costume leaves little to be desired. But with regard to matters of detail,—appropriateness of color, pattern, and general ornament,—in short, all that is left to individual taste, there is undoubtedly much to be learned. There is always some style of dress more suitable than any other, and in which a woman appears to the best advantage. This style she ought to know, and not for her own sake only. Across the Channel they understand these things perfectly, and the toilet almost supplies the place of personal attractions. What an effect would be produced, if one result of the new alliance should be the union of French taste with English beauty 1 —though, so far as the sterner sex is concerned, the effect would be perfectly heartrending, and the words of Prior wonld find a universal echo:

“The adorning thoe with so much art
Is but a barbarous skill:
‘Tis but the poisoning of a dart,
Too apt before to kill.”

Those who suppose that we would inculcate a love of dress, greatly mistake; though we wish to direct attention to a subject that is imperfectly studied, and much misunderstood. As a rule, every thing is left to the milliner and tailor, and we helplessly acquiesce in their decisions. We should like to see more of independent judgment, and less direct imitation. Why should half the world go into livery, because one year blue cloaks are said to be in fashion, or scarlet cloaks in another? The same faces cannot look well in both. In most other matters we proceed upon some principles or rules of action, but in this we are guided by mere fancy or caprice. Not one lady in ten who enters a draper’s shop has previously made up her mind as to the color of the dress she is about to purchase; and is only confused by the number and rariety displayed; whereas a little attention and study would save muoh valuable time, and, in many cases, not a little annoyance. If it is difficult to know what colors are most suitable, it is not difficult to learn what colors are unsuitable; which would narrow the question, and simplify the process of choice. Dress should bo appropriate, as regards personal physique; harmonious, as regards its component parts; comfortable, for the sake of health; and consistent, as regards social position. Those who neglect the first three rules do less than justice to themselves; those who neglect the last, offend other people. If they dress above their station, they exert an evil influence upon their equals, and excite the contempt of their superiors; if they dress below their station, they presume upon their social position, and transgress the laws of good taste and good breeding.

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