What colour are you? A focus on white
White is an achromatic colour, meaning literally “without colour”. The word has roots in various languages, and means ‘to be bright or blinding’.
In 1666, Isaac Newton demonstrated that white light could be broken up into its composite colours by passing it through a prism. Before Newton, most scientists believed that white was the fundamental colour of light.
White is very common in nature, as it is the colour of snow, ice, clouds and minerals such as chalk and limestone. The famous white cliffs of Dover, on the south coast of England, owe their colour to chalk. Many Arctic animals have adapted to their extreme environment by developing white fur that enables them to avoid predators and stalk prey. Examples include the Arctic fox and hare, the snowy owl and the polar bear. Some animals even change colour in the winter. The Arctic ermine is pure white in the winter and a red-brown colour the rest of the year.
In many cultures white represents purity, innocence, and light, and is the symbolic opposite of black, or darkness. White is the colour most often associated with good, honesty, cleanliness, new beginnings and neutrality. Black and white often represent the contrast between light and darkness, day and night, good and evil.
The two opposite natures of the universe, yin and yang, are often symbolised in black and white. Games of strategy, such as chess, use black and white to represent the two sides.
Too much white can be cold and isolating, implying sterility and providing little stimulation for the senses, it can be too pristine and perfect, making you feel as though you can’t make a move for fear of creating a mess.
So what about white in fashion and textiles?
White was a fashionable colour for men and women in the 18th century. Men in the aristocracy wore powdered white wigs and white stockings, and women wore elaborate embroidered white and pastel gowns.
After the French Revolution a more austere white became the most fashionable colour for women. The Empire style was modelled after the dress of Ancient Rome. Whilst the dresses may have been fashionable, they certainly were not warm. Some women, including the Empress Joséphine, died from illnesses caught wearing the thin garments in cold weather.
White was the colour of both men and women’s underwear and of sheets in the 18th and 19th centuries, for a very practical reason – linen was washed in boiling water causing colours to fade. Colour fastness wasn’t what it is today.
White is the traditional colour worn by royal brides, but the white wedding dress for ordinary people didn’t appear until the 19th century. Before then, most brides wore their best Sunday clothing, whatever the colour. The white lace wedding gown of Queen Victoria in 1840 had a big impact on the colour and fashion of wedding dresses which continues to the present day.
White is the colour most associated with cleanliness. Objects which are expected to be clean, such as fridges, washing machines (which are even referred to as ‘white goods’) toilets and sinks, are traditionally white. White was also the traditional colour of the coats of doctors, nurses, scientists and laboratory technicians, though nowadays other colours are used.
In some Asian countries, white is the colour of mourning and funerals. White is also the colour of reincarnation, showing that death is not a permanent separation from the world.
The absoluteness of white appealed to modernist painters. Kazimir Malevich was a pioneer of geometric abstract art. In 1915 he painted ‘Black Square’ and followed this in 1918 with ‘White on White’. White was also used by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. His most famous paintings consist of a white canvas with a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and rectangles of primary colours.
Black and white also appealed to modernist architects, such as Le Corbusier, summed up by his famous Villa Savoye.
So how do we use the word ‘white’ in day to day language?
To ‘whitewash’ something is to conceal an unpleasant reality. A ‘white lie’ is a trivial lie told out of politeness or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
‘White collar workers’ refers to those who work in offices. It comes from the white shirts that many of the workers wore from the 19th century onwards, in contrast to the blue overalls worn by manual workers.
A ‘white paper’ refers to an authoritative report by a team of experts. Associating a paper with white is intended to signify clean facts and unbiased information.
In fashion white is often thought of as a summer colour, although it remains a staple look at all times, often teamed with black.
So are there any rules when it comes to wearing white? Perhaps just one…the only woman who should wear a white dress to a wedding is the bride.
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