The Secret Lives of Color

Which color was named after a battle near Milan? It was a shade of pinkish-purple, and one of the 75 hues explored in Kassia St. Clair's exuberant, encyclopedic The Secret Lives of Color, which details the strange and entertaining narratives of colors.

St. Clair, a columnist for Elle Decoration, opens with a crash course on color vision, reviewing the basics of the visible light spectrum, rods, cones, color blindness and the variability of color interpretation. Next, she offers background on artists' pigments, cultural contexts of colors, their politics and the effects of language on perception. But the bulk of The Secret Lives of Color lies in its brief yet delightful histories behind the hues St. Clair has curated. Just as delightfully, the book's pages themselves burst with color, tangible tints alongside tales.

St. Clair organizes her work in terms of color family, beginning with white and moving into shades of yellow, orange, pink, red, purple, blue, green, brown and black. She culls heavily, but not exclusively, from European history, delving into art, fashion and politics. She explores the notion of gendered colors and their effects, noting "the pink tax," the shift in military uniforms marked by the adoption of khaki, and the anthropological curiosity that was "mummy brown," made from ground-up human bodies (naturally). There's also the somewhat recent 1980s' acid yellow and stories of rusty red hematite dating to the Paleolithic era in almost every continent.

And as for the color named after the battle near Milan? Magenta. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

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