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