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Colour me happy: Books delve into the why and how of a pigment's power

When Hillary Clinton wore purple (the combination of GOP red and Democratic blue) at her concession speech, it was symbolically seen as conciliatory.

Brian Snyder/REUTERS

Trend forecasters are paid to synthesize and extrapolate fads from street style and runways. It's a dubious but entertaining enterprise, and because of the wealth of over-interpretation, often a dizzying one, particularly when it comes to declaring the colour of a season or year. But colour is a data code – a lucrative one.

Many are quick to interpret what political statement – and by extension, allegiance – the choice of colour makes, for example. When Hillary Clinton voters (and Ivanka and Melania Trump) wore white to the polls, it was linked as a tribute to the colour worn by suffragettes a century ago, even though the association is historical and hasn't been active in any generation's cultural memory for decades. Later, at Clinton's concession speech, it was her display of purple (the combination of GOP red and Democratic blue) that was symbolically seen as conciliatory.

The cat-eared toques worn during the Women's March reclaimed Malibu Barbie pink and its many iterations – shocking, fluorescent, puce, even a shade called amaranth – back from feminist backlash that has said it was too sexist and too binary.

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In design writer Kassia St. Clair's engaging new book The Secret Lives of Colour, the author charts how colours develop and cement themselves in the culture, or how certain colours attach themselves to meanings, artists and designers by association. A shade since dubbed Baker-Miller pink, I learned, is the sickly rose hue used as of 1979 to calm aggressive prisoners in holding cells. St. Clair moves through a chromatic scale of 75 shades, beginning with lead white, isabelline and beige to woad, Prussian and cobalt, through heliotrope and puce to deep purple and black.

Through short essays, St. Clair reveals how certain well-known and unusual pigments' colourful pasts still haunt the present day. Her paintbox of history and meaning adds new dimension to looking at every outfit choice for cues and subtext in an increasingly visual culture – particularly when it comes to political and celebrity people-watching. Colour choices are reflective of mood but they can also be prescriptive, according to Dougall Fraser's upcoming Your Life in Colour, a sort of psychic guide to the rainbow. Fraser considers the soul's spectrum of hues and posits that colour has spiritual qualities, then focuses on techniques to diagnose one's needs and activate colour's energy. He offers meditations on colours that enhance, restore or rebalance.

I read Fraser's book because I was curious to know why I'd abruptly gone off saturated magenta and other vivid warm colours and why green and blue (colours I've never liked) suddenly exerted an almost gravitational pull.

If I were willing myself into a different state of mind wouldn't I rouse myself to cheer with orange and other brights? If interpreted by literary association, say, my new preferences could be attributed to the classification scheme of Allen Lane's vintage Penguin paperbacks – cerise is travel and adventure, which I am decidedly not in the mood for these days, whereas green is reserved for crime novels, and lately much of my leisure time has been spent burrowing into such books.

Sure, it's pseudoscience. But we're all doing it. By this measure, you might also track the emotional drain of the American election and its ongoing fallout over the award season's red carpets. Beginning with the Golden Globes in early January, a time of political upheaval in the U.S., the colour parade had a different context and evoked different interpretations.

For his part, Fraser eschews feminist history and considers white by its energy as "the universe's all-purpose cleanser." It represents transition and renewal. But while Issa Rae, Sienna Miller, Sarah Jessica Parker and others wore chalk white (though maybe it's time to coin a more modern association for the history books and call it Hillary white), many of the other women at January's Golden Globes took their cues from the sunshine-hued dress Emma Stone wears for the romantic duet in La La Land.

Reese Witherspoon wore butter yellow, Maisi Williams goldenrod and Viola Davis daffodil, which her stylist Elizabeth Stewart said was meant to be a symbol of hope in dark times. The many shades of yellow left commentators grasping for the correct nomenclature, a reminder of Victorian art critic John Ruskin's bon mots: "It is the best possible sign of a colour when nobody who sees it knows what to call it." Historically, yellow is the colour of the outsider – of dissent and non-conformity. According to St. Clair, it began with art's frequent depiction of Judas Iscariot wearing yellow through to heretics and those unwilling to renounce their faith during the Spanish inquisition forced to wear yellow capes.

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Warm colours red, orange and yellow are said to have a psychological effect and increase feelings of vitality. So while colour can express mood it can also attempt to correct it – call it dressing for dopamine, a trigger for the happiness hormone. Yet subsequent red carpets expressed the ongoing political turmoil and attendant fatigue.

Three weeks after the Golden Globes, and post Donald Trump's inauguration as president, the red carpet rainbow at the SAG awards was dour and dark instead of technicolour; with the exception of Nicole Kidman's emerald green dress, stars wore washed-out pastels and sombre hues. When the Academy Awards convene this weekend, I predict a red carpet trend that will make it simple to interpret the overall mood: funereal black.

Video: Gender takes a back stage to makeup and manicures for some young Japanese men
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About the Author

Nathalie More

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