Winter 2007–2008

Colors / Mauve

Shelley Jackson

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Contusions and confusions. Half-mourning and melancholia. Twilight and adolescence, home decorators and homosexuals. Drag queen hair, cheap swag, braggadocio. Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley (that “monstrous orchid,” said Wilde). Orchids, especially Cattleya labiata. All things orchidaceous, including the word “orchidaceous.” Prose just shy of purple. According to Nabokov, time itself.

A young chemist tinkering with coal tar, hoping to find a way to synthesize quinine to treat the malaria felling British soldiers stationed in India, discovers, instead, a color. Mauve, the color of disappointment.

But, “strangely beautiful,” thinks the chemist, and dips some silk in it, finds the color takes. He sends a sample to a Scottish dyer, who sees possibilities. The color lasts like no natural purple. And the ladies seem to like it.

Mauve, the color of opportunity.

It is 1856. Madame Bovary, who would have looked luscious in mauve, is about to poison herself in the pages of the Revue de Paris. A year later, Empress Eugénie will fall for the new hue—matches her eyes, she says. In 1858, Queen Victoria wears it to her daughter’s wedding and gives it her royal imprimatur.

Cooked up in a laboratory by a scientist who thought, like that other earnest young scientist Dr. Frankenstein, that he was beating back death, mauve is the first artificial color. And like Frankenstein’s creation, mauve is vital but unnatural, a little monstrous. Even pestilential: “The Mauve Measles,” quipped Punch, are “spreading to so serious an extent that it is high time to consider by what means [they] may be checked.” Everyone is wearing it. And since skirts are enormous, and worn with crinolines, not to mention the unmentionables, mauve unfolds by the yard (or the meter) out of dye-works across Europe. It is followed in quick succession by other synthetic colors, also derived from coal tar: aniline yellow, aldehyde green, bleu de Paris. An entire industry foams up out of furbelows, demonstrating the power of both science and the female consumer. As Simon Garfield points out in his book Mauve (to which this essay is heavily indebted), by launching industrial chemistry, mauve will change the fate, not just of fashion, but of science, medicine, art, and war. It will also make the chemist, William Perkin, a very rich man.

Sir William Perkin’s original mauve dye, 1856. Courtesy Science and Society Picture Library.

One does not necessarily think of a color as a commodity. Colors, the ancients reasoned, are qualities of objects, or our eyes’ subjective response to those objects, not entities in themselves. They tinge and dapple and pass on. Nonetheless, some ancients paid high prices for one color: purple. So “Tyrian purple” is the name Perkin gives his new hue, referencing the dye eked out of the glandular secretions of tiny, spiny sea snails in ancient Tyre to color the imperial robes of Rome. But real Tyrian purple was the near-black of dried blood. What’s more, Perkin’s color is cheap, but that’s mauve for you, the color of ostentation. The name doesn’t take. Instead, mauve gets its name from a French flower, the one the English call mallow. (Though Nabokov, licking his lips, would liken the color to an orchid’s instead: Cattleya labiata.)

Say mauve. It takes longer than most English words of its length. Long enough to lose heart part-way through. We’re not quite sure how to pronounce its soft center: aw or oh. Mauve collapses in the mouth like a chocolate truffle. Like a truffle, it tastes expensive, decadent, imported. The word is to American English as the color is to American clothes. It enters one’s vocabulary late if at all, an adult word, with a tinge of the boudoir, and so it signals sophistication and a possibly unhealthy attention to aesthetics. It’s a little too knowing (shades of swimsuits to tempt Lolita: “Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve”). It’s a little too French. Mauve signifies over-refinement, the exhaustion of potency in the making of ever-finer discriminations; that’s why “Code Mauve” is the stuff of stand-up. A prose writer knows she’s getting fancy—purple—when she uses mauve, as she isn’t, paradoxically, when using purple. Mauve prose: the phrase gets a wink, unlike the prosaic purple, though it’s not always clear whether mauve avoids purple’s excesses, or fails to rise to its imperial pomp. But either way, mauve is fey, rococo, mandarin (all decidedly purplish words). It comes across as calculated, even factitious. Decorative rather than forceful, it’s a crepe veil or piece of jet pinned on a sentence, not its muscle. Women and homosexuals wear the color, use the word. Code for gay until lavender took over, mauve is the gender expression shibboleth—the example most often given of things real men don’t say. (Given by, frequently, men themselves, though that would seem to strain the tenet.) “Man rule: We have no idea what mauve is,” woofs one blogger.

What is mauve? That pale violet that makes certain flowers seem to fluoresce at dusk, or the sullen, sullied rose of Victorian lampshades and mourning dresses? A cooler magenta, a gooier violet? Mauve, the color of ish, is defined most clearly by hedging negatives: not quite pink, not quite purple. It’s less a hue in its own right than a diminution or intensification of some other hue; it has about it, simultaneously, an air of petulant retreat and overweening assertion. “Pink trying to be purple,” sniffs Whistler. Or the visited link, its vitality depleted. Mauve is a “feminine” color, but not a yielding one. It is adult, imperious. But its strength is ambivalent. Though pugnacious, it is not candid. Like Victorian fashions, it stresses femininity while repressing the frankly female.

This ambivalence is characteristic. Mauve is the color of suspended choice and uncertain boundaries. One of the few colors permitted to women in half-mourning, the period of transition between black crêpe and the full spectrum, mauve signals the transition from despair to reconciliation. A transition that recapitulates the dye’s own emergence from a beaker of black gunk. The association with death is not just metaphorical. Only a few years after Perkin’s discovery, suspicions arose that mauve, and the other new dyes it led to, could raise real rashes, that the efflux of factories could poison villages. And Pynchon traces an arc in Gravity’s Rainbow from mauve to the dye industry, from the dye industry to IG Farben, from IG Farben to Zyklon B.

“Consider coal and steel. There is a place where they meet,” Pynchon writes: “the coal-tars. A thousand different molecules waited in the preterite dung. This is the sign of revealing. Of unfolding. This is one meaning of mauve, the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth’s light from its grave miles and aeons below.” But was it a new color? Surely mauve, the hue, already existed in nature—in the orchid, the mallow, the mauve. The glans, even. Except that, as Oscar Wilde writes, it is not Nature but Art—in the persons of Monet and Pissarro—that creates the “white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows ... and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably.” Nature imitates art, and artists can’t paint nature mauve without mauve paint. In 1856, the world changed color.

As colors go, that is a very recent birth date, which makes mauve, precisely, dated. The color of now became the color of then. But mauve came back in the nineteen-eighties, and the eighties came back, are coming back, will come back any day now (time, like mauve, is an alloy, not an element). Mauve is the past; the future is mauve.

Shelley Jackson is the author of Half Life (HarperCollins, 2006), The Melancholy of Anatomy (Anchor, 2002), hypertexts including Patchwork Girl (Eastgate, 1995), several children’s books, and Skin, a story published in tattoos on 2095 volunteers, one word at a time (a project launched in Cabinet no. 11). Co-founder with Christine Hill of the Interstitial Library and headmistress of the Shelley Jackson Vocational School for Ghost Speakers and Hearing-Mouth Children, she lives in Brooklyn. For more information, see