Black And Blue

A recent piece by Richard Press from his “Threading The Needle” column at J. Press delved into the topic of black, the verboten color of gentlemanly menswear.

But while black is often the schmuck’s stand-in for patrician navy, it may actually be worse to wear blue, at least from a certain point of view. You see, last week JSTOR ran an article whose title pretty much says it all: “Colonialism Created Navy Blue.” Now I’ve wondered many times whether trad clothing is politically incorrect, and while I’m mostly told no, the case seems to be mounting against it — along with everything else from the past that can be deemed “problematic,” which is, of course, everything from the past.

Quotes the article:

The rich color came from the indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, which was native to India, and thus available to the British after they had colonized the country. It had been in use in Europe since the late thirteenth century. “Indigo was then not only plentiful and affordable [in the 18th century], but unlike other dyes was particularly color fast, outclassing other colors in withstanding extensive exposure to sun and salt water.”

“Different textiles required different treatment and even different dyes to achieve a given colour,” writes historian Susan Fairlie in The Economic History Review. Wool is the easiest to dye, while silk, cotton, and linen are each a bit harder and need varying amounts of dyes like woad. “The only fast attractive dye which worked equally on all four, with minor differences in preparation, was indigo.”

Eventually, South Carolina emerged as a leading indigo producer, when the crop was introduced as part of the plantation system in the eighteenth century. “In combination with rice, indigo underpinned the threefold increase in the colony’s exports in the generation before the American Revolution and was also mainly responsible for the striking gains in slave-labour productivity made in the same period,” Nash states. Enslaved people were integral to the forced labor that allowed for the spread of indigo into the dye markets and onto clothing.

Navy blue, meanwhile, endures as a color of authority today, worn by everyone from police to military officers, centuries after its promotion as the uniform of imperial expansion.

The article does not conclude with any suggestions regarding actions one might take in light of this information. Is it OK to continue wearing navy, so long as one acknowledges its troubling origins? Will people go through an awakening process, as many do with their diets, first cutting red meat, then going vegetarian, and finally full vegan?

We would seem to be left on the horns of a dilemma: wear black and be a schmuck, or wear navy and be a colonialist. Only you can decide which is the lesser of these two evils. — CC

46 Comments on "Black And Blue"

  1. Old School Tie | June 3, 2019 at 4:37 pm |

    Have we entered an era when even choice of apparel is cause for hand-wringing. In such a case, my rule of thumb shall be to wear with pride anything that would irk AOC or Remainers.

  2. Boop McSnoot | June 3, 2019 at 4:40 pm |

    Cue the O U T R A G E. It’s a nice rhetorical trick to set up a simple binary – “everything from the past” can either be deemed “problematic,” OR it can be accepted. That’s not the case at all, of course, and you already supply the answer to your own question – almost everything commonly seen as “problematic” (an overused word) can still be loved and accepted, but it’s better to do that loving and acceptance with knowledge of the full context rather than in ignorance of it. Even if navy blue was “created by” colonialism, wearing it does not make one a colonialist, or someone who approves of colonialism by extension. But knowing the history of what we wear – the good and the bad – is still valuable context to have. (The best example of this would probably be cotton.)

  3. Boop McSnoot | June 3, 2019 at 4:41 pm |

    @ Old School Tie – I’m sure AOC will tremble in her shoes when she inevitably reads your comment and sees your wardrobe choices! Way to stick it to ’em!

  4. I really see no way to escape a guilty conscience in wearing clothes these days unless one only wears bespoke garments made in Western Europe and shuns leather.

    Everything else from designer labels to fast fashion is made by 13 year-old girls in third-world sweatshops making fifteen cents an hour.

    It’s really shocking how cheap clothes are at the low end and how expensive clothes are at the luxury boutique end. The market is completely bifurcated.

  5. Hardbopper | June 3, 2019 at 4:49 pm |

    Ya, whatever. Grey and brown were declared to be not pc years ago, so what’s left?

  6. Ezra Cornell | June 3, 2019 at 5:10 pm |

    You’re the Jedi master of trolling. Not very good at reading articles with any nuance (though I appreciate the interesting JSTOR link; conservatives are not usually the ones afraid of history), but when it comes to manufacturing outrage, you’re the master. Poor thing, always beset by people having ideas and then actually saying them. If you’re feeling triggered, you might try a little bourbon.

  7. European fabric dyers began using indigo imported from Asia and Africa as far back as the 13th century, 500 years before South Carolina emerged as a leading producer.

    I know this because I just recently finished reading “Blue: The History Of A Color” by Michel Pastoureau. I highly recommend his whole “color” series.

  8. Looking at numerous portraits of men from the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century (photographs aren’t really helpful as they are black and white), it’s evident that the most common color for coats (daytime coats, such as frock coats) was black or charcoal gray; not navy! In the colonies (which were mostly located in the tropics or subtropics) the Europeans often wore light colored linen suits.
    Thus it’s interesting to research when and where navy blue became the most popular color in men’s wear. The 1920’s, perhaps?

  9. Richard E. Press | June 3, 2019 at 10:09 pm |

    Blue Moon, I saw you standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own. Blue blazers, blue moons, it’s all the same.

  10. Roger Sack | June 4, 2019 at 12:13 am |

    Colonialism gets a bum rap. It is a mixed picture, especially during the late 19th and 20th century.
    Yes, there was a genocide by the Belgians in the Congo, but many other colonies in Africa and Asia
    were better governed by the British and the French than they have been since decolonization. Think
    Idi Amin, Mobutu, Boumidienne, Pol Pot, Bokassa, Siad Barre, Mugabe, etc.

  11. And then the same handful of omnipresent cranks will chime in using the same old rhetoric to call of the leftists, and so on, and so on, and so on… yawn

  12. Synthetic indigo, one of the great achievements of modern chemical synthesis, replaced plant-based indigo over a hundred years ago.

  13. Old School Tie | June 4, 2019 at 5:20 am |

    Do MAGA hats come in a navy variant…..?

  14. I liked it better when CC only posted April Fools’ content on 1 April. For that matter, I enjoyed the site a lot better when it was mainly about traditional clothing and less about the cruel oppression of white guys. This white guy is managing just fine without CC’s embarrassing Dennis Miller act.

  15. CC is quite the agent provocateur here: we have an interesting, if somewhat dry, entry in an agricultural history journal (Nash), which is then aggregated into a web post with its eyebrow-raising title (JSTOR), and Chens then frames it with a couple of ‘further decline of white guys?’ questions. And, sure enough, some of the usual suspects were ‘triggered’ (to use Ezra Cornell’s word) and immediately chimed in about AOC and MAGA hats. This is, indeed, some pretty good trolling.

  16. MacMcConnell | June 4, 2019 at 7:09 am |

    Is there anything colonialist couldn’t do? Blue, must be the French. British wore red, it was cheaper.

  17. João T. da Costa | June 4, 2019 at 7:58 am |

    If indigo is problematic, then so are blue jeans. Obviously.

  18. Information is power.
    It’s quite sad however, I’ve no guilt here or culpability as I wasn’t alive when these things transpired.

  19. “The rich color came from the indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, which was native to India, and thus available to the British after they had colonized the country.” Seems reductive even for a brief article, especially as indigo was a key inland trading commodity centuries before Europeans arrived in India. Even after that, it was traded with the English AND Dutch in the 17th century before the British Royal Navy’s introduction of the uniform. As with most of these declamatory articles, I have to wonder what it is that us navy-wearing colonizers and sympathizers are supposed to do about it now?

  20. Boop McSnoot | June 4, 2019 at 9:14 am |

    No one’s going to comment on Roger Sack’s laughable and astonishing assertion that French and British colonialism were better for African and Asian nations than independence?

  21. @boop: That’s what’s known as a ‘center-left’ position here.
    @vea: Agreed; I’ve just not yet figured out if the satire is an expression of CC’s latent progressivism or something simpler and dumber.

  22. whiskeydent | June 4, 2019 at 10:31 am |

    I’m going fishing Friday, and I hope the bait is better than this.

  23. Navy blue was considered a “prole” color in France in the 18th century. It was Robespierre’s clothing color of choice for all his speeches and public appearances. So says Simon Schama the historian. As Mike LaFontaine might say: “Wha’ appen?”

  24. @Boop

    Ever had a conversation with an African who lived under colonialism and then independence, and asked his opinion on the matter?

    In the mid-’90s I had a tennis partner from Uganda.

  25. Boop McSnoot | June 4, 2019 at 12:14 pm |

    @ CC – While you don’t actually say what your Ugandan tennis partner said, I’m assuming you mention him because he agreed with Roger Sack. Even if that was the case, surely you aren’t going to extrapolate from one person’s anecdotal experience (which is of course valid as such) to cover the political and social history of two entire continents over the last several centuries? That would be very slippery indeed.

  26. Slippery indeed!

    I can only report what one man told me: “It got better and then it got worse.”

    Seems to corroborate some of the news and documentary footage I’ve seen about China going into Africa.

    I miss the guy. He was a real character. Dressed in all-white like an English gentleman (cricket jumpers and the like) and never missed a chance to say how much he hated the English.

    I had somehow ended up with two partners who were presumably the only two African tennis players in town. The other guy was from Egypt (I had a typical Queens doubles match last Friday with Egyptian, Colombian, and my gay astrology pal). When the Ugandan heard about the Egtypian, he sneered with contempt and had no interest in meeting him.

    I guess he put them in the same category as the English.

  27. Jonathan Sanders | June 4, 2019 at 12:31 pm |

    I’ll stick with Navy, thank you.

  28. Boop McSnoot | June 4, 2019 at 12:53 pm |

    @ CC – ““It got better and then it got worse” seems like a very pithy statement. Of course, to infer from that that, say, Uganda was a better country under colonialism would be (in my view) to misinterpret your tennis partner’s attitude. The squandered promise of independence does not necessarily mean that independence is inherently worse than the system it replaced, or that colonialism is inherently better than the system which replaced it. Especially when we add to this the fact that many repressive dictators were members of the elite class, educated by, and even in, the colonial power, which certainly muddies the waters (Pol Pot, mentioned by Roger Sack as “worse than colonialism,” is a good example). Often, independence in former colonies fails because the colonizer did not build adequate systems in place to have a self-sufficient society (why would they, after all?) and so after independence, a vacuum was created, often filled by the figure who could grasp their opportunity most effectively – many times using colonial methods, this time from within.

  29. I know that Cyril Ramaphosa is currently doing some great things in South Africa.


  30. I too highly recommend Michel Pastoureau’s books on the history of colors. His little book The Devil’s Cloth on the history of stripes and striped fabric is also excellent.

    Blue’s history is particularly interesting. It was not a prestigious color all through the middle ages, since European peasants dyed homespun cloth with woad. So the middle and upper classes shunned blue in general, because of its association with peasant garb.

    Pastoureau’s background is in the study of heraldry, and he states that a survey of heraldic imagery through much of the middle ages shows vanishingly little use of blue.

    It wasn’t until more colorfast dyes, such as indigo, became available that blue was rehabilitated as an acceptable color.

    His accounts of the influences of the various dyers’ guilds on the history of fabric and fashion are always very interesting. There were different guilds that controlled the use of different technologies, and hence dyers would generally specialize in one color or family of colors – depending on the dyes and associated techniques that their guild was allowed to use.

  31. @Boop

    @ CC – ““It got better and then it got worse” seems like a very pithy statement. Of course, to infer from that that, say, Uganda was a better country under colonialism would be (in my view) to misinterpret your tennis partner’s attitude.

    Apparently you can interpret other people’s conversations better than they can themselves. That’s taking woke to the level of superpower!

  32. Boop McSnoot | June 4, 2019 at 2:21 pm |

    @ CC – Good job getting another buzzword in there – I don’t really see the “woke” aspect of my comment. It was just what you say – my own interpretation. As indicated in my comment. In the exact section you quoted. You, also, are making an interpretation (though, and I repeat my word from earlier, a more slippery one because you aren’t coming out and saying it, instead giving yourself a veneer of “mere reporting”) in offering his statement up at all, because you’re pretty clearlyusing it to support the view that independence in Uganda IS worse than colonialism. Alas, we both must be satisfied with our interpretations, since your Ugandan tennis partner isn’t here to clarify. Almost as if providing his statement in the first place doesn’t *really* get us very far down the road of settling this debate! Luckily, as I said originally, the question doesn’t rest on his statement – it rests on the documented history of several centuries of European, Asian, African, and general colonial history.

    I’m not really surprised that someone who writes for The National Review would subscribe to Buckley’s view of independence for oppressed groups – that they are so far behind whites that they have no capacity to take on the responsibility of freedom for themselves, and instead must be guided to equality by their benevolent oppressors.

  33. The Earl of Iredell | June 4, 2019 at 4:22 pm |

    So Ivy league style is now infested with ethnomasochism . . . whoda ever thunkit?

  34. Evan Everhart | June 4, 2019 at 5:07 pm |

    I am both amused and horrified at how polarized this debate in the comments has gotten! Both apparent “sides” have thrown in whole-hog into one camp or the other. Perhaps a more balanced perspective is needed here, one which views both “sides” for what they are.

    Under colonialism, the colonized territories had generally speaking more peace, infrastructure, economic stability, and all of the education and comfort for the average person which come with those things, that said, the peoples who were colonized were systematically exploited, or in some cases selectively exploited either to destabilize the native populations to prevent them from throwing off their colonial “masters”, or to penalize groups which were felt to be inferior (by the colonists), or to keep down problem groups known to be aggressive. The above typical scenarios of course created fertile ground for the great evil of Marxist ideologies which by and large fueled the revolutions, peaceful and otherwise which pushed for independence and “freedom” of course in groups who were not used to such “freedom”, or who foolishly relied upon sectarian ethnic groups and all of the maelstrom of disorder within the various former colonial sectors, chaos awaited and ensued.

    All of that said, it is arguably true that colonies, prior to their liberation or decolonization were safer, more economically stable, had better educational and medical services available, and were far more stable in all respects, due in large part to the threat and imminent possibility of swift military repercussions if the peace was breached.

    There were no internal genocides (aboriginal ethnic groups against themselves or their neighbors) or famines on the large scale or with the regularity that we see today and in the recent past.

  35. Evan Everhart | June 4, 2019 at 5:08 pm |

    Colonialism like most things was a mixed bag of fair and foul. The fair mediocrely so by a 1st world measuring stick, but perhaps not so mediocre by a 3rd world measure, the foul, utterly foul and degrading and exploitative in the extreme. As I said, a supremely mixed bag.

  36. whiskeydent | June 4, 2019 at 5:18 pm |

    I’ve actually been to Africa and follow its news. It’s not a place where simple answers work — at all.

    I’d think the majority of Kenyans, Tanzanians, Zambians, South Africans, and Botswanans would think they’re better off. Note I said majority, not all.

    I’d guess the people would be neutral or slightly negative in Uganda and some others. Unfortunately, those in West and Central Africa live in nightmares and are probably decidedly negative. I don’t know enough about North Africa to venture an opinion.

    And what do you do with tribes such as the Massai? They live in brutal, primitive circumstances, but that’s exactly how they want to live. Visit them and you’ll meet proud people living in huts made of cow dung.

    That goes to another point. Many of these countries were riven with tribal wars before colonialism and after independence. In my opinion, I think they viewed colonialism as just a different kind of nightmare, with the exception of the Portuguese. They were greedy, inhuman criminals.

    So I guess I’m saying Sack is right in some countries, but certainly not in all. However, I don’t think Buckley idea of re-colonizing them wouldn’t fix anything. You’d be swapping chaos and violence for government oppression and violence. Either way, the people suffer.

  37. whiskeydent | June 4, 2019 at 5:21 pm |

    I messed up a sentence at the end. It should be:
    I don’t think Buckley’s idea of re-colonizing them would fix anything.

  38. BrophyBoy | June 4, 2019 at 7:49 pm |

    I’ll have a double helping of that delicious colonialism, thank you.

  39. Terry O’Reilly | June 5, 2019 at 1:22 am |

    What an odd piece. Navy is my favorite color and I’ll not stop wearing it anytime soon.

  40. MacMcConnell | June 5, 2019 at 8:44 am |

    Thanks Evan and Whiskey. Colonialism is a mixed bag. It also depends on the nation doing the colonizing. We (USA) didn’t do so bad.

  41. whiskeydent | June 5, 2019 at 10:24 am |

    I’d like to make one other thing clear. There is a difference between whether people are actually better off and whether they think they are better off. The Massai are a perfect example. Most outsiders would say they are not better off. They think they are because they still get to live as they wish and now get funding from park fees they didn’t get under the Brits.

    You can learn a lot more by reading about the ivory wars. Leakey did some great things in Kenya, but his fierce anti-tribal stance created no buy-in from the tribes. Since then, tourism (safaris) throughout East and Southern Africa are usually — but certainly not always — structured so the locals benefit and have a financial incentive to not get in the ivory trade. It ain’t perfect at all, but it ain’t bad.

  42. whiskeydent | June 5, 2019 at 10:41 am |

    The Massai also share in the Ivy reverence for tartans.

  43. Old School Tie | June 5, 2019 at 7:03 pm |

    Wonderful showing from the hysterical liberals. Wonderful.

  44. @OldSchoolTie: have a little humility – and maybe a sense of humor – and admit that our editor set a goofy little trap & you walked right into it.

  45. Colonialism was bad, but on the flip side:

  46. I wasn’t going to pyle on CC,I let his astute readers do it for me.

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