Colourwatch: Pondering puce
Can there be any colour so open to interpretation as puce? I’d always assumed it was a kind of lurid purple (probably because of the expression “he went puce in the face” and because in historical fiction unpleasant and obsequious characters generally seem to wear puce). But type puce into google image search and you get all kinds of colours from brown to pink to purple to red. Here’s the official Pantone swatch for Puce on the right. Not the most attractive colour, is it?
All this pondering of puce stems from a fascinating anecdote I was reading on google book search in a book published in 1800: Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, by Isaac Disraeli (author and father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli):
In the summer of 1775 the queen [Marie Antoinette] being dressed in a brown lutestring, the king [Louis XVI] good humouredly observed it was “couleur de puce”, the colour of fleas, and instantly every lady would be drest in a lutestring of a flea colour. The mania was caught by the men, and the dyers in vain exhausted themselves to supply the hourly demand.
They distinguished between an old and a young flea and they subdivided even the shades of the body of this insect; the belly, the back, the thigh and the head were all marked by varying shades of this colour. This prevailing tint promised to be the fashion of the winter. The venders of silk found that it would he pernicious to their trade, they therefore presented new satins to her majesty, who, having chosen one of a grey ash colour, Monsieur exclaimed that it was the Colour of her majesty’s hair! Immediately the fleas ceased to be favourites and all were eager to be drest in the colour of her majesty’s hair. Servants were sent off at the moment from Fontainebleau to Paris to purchase velvets, rateens and cloths of this colour. The current price in the morning had been forty livres per ell and it rose towards the evening to the price of eighty to ninety livres…
Such was the continued demand that some of her majesty’s hair was actually obtained by bribery and sent to the Gobelins, to Lyons and other manufactories that the exact made might be caught.
Lutestring was a plain glossy silk, so a lutestring was presumably a dress in this silk.
Rateen is a coarse woollen fabric.
Gobelins is a tapestry factory located in Paris, France, at 42 avenue des Gobelins, best known as a royal factory supplying the court of Louis XIV and later monarchs; it is now run by the French Ministry of Culture, and open for guided tours several afternoons per week by appointment.
An ell is is a unit of measurement, approximating the length of a mans arm. The exact length differed by country as shown in the diagram to the right.
Surfing the net for images of puce 18th century dresses didn’t turn up much, until I found this fascinating lot sold by auction by Christies back in October 2008:
This is actually a fragment of dress and lace worn by Queen Marie Antoinette in the Temple prison, where the French Royal family were imprisoned in 1792. “Le fragment de robe en soie puce brodée de branches de jasmin” is the lot description, which I think translates to something like “Fragment of a dress in puce silk embroidered with branches of Jasmin”. This colour is very far from my original idea of what puce was, but I suppose it is very close to the translucent brown of a bloodsucking insect.
This led me on to re-examine one of the most famous portraits of Marie Antoinette at the top of this post, painted by Vigée Le Brun in 1785. I’d always thought Marie Antoinette wore a blue-grey dress in this particular portrait? But apparently there were two versions painted, one in 1783, and this later one. I appreciate that the image may have been reproduced on the web in a way that makes the colour inaccurate, but I’m wondering….. that dress….could it be puce?