The furore around whether this dress, aka #TheDress is blue and black or white and gold (I say it’s white and gold. Obviously!) and the delicious vox pop videos the BBC and others are making of when they ask people about it (“you’re winding me up!??? Are you turning my spanner???”) makes me wonder what would have happened if there had been twitter and video in 1820s Paris.
That year the Gobelins Royal tapestry workshop in Paris had a problem. They were using the same bright dyes that they’d been using since the 1660s, and which they were famous for, and for which they were charging a fortune. The trouble was the coloured threads started coming up grey on the tapestry.
A dress manufacturer could just change the production line but these guys only managed about a square metre in a year (tapestries were about 12 feet high and longer across and were made by teams of weavers) so mistakes were pretty painful.
Today they’d have had young media types wandering around posh Parisian arrondissements holding up tapestry samples of bright red against orange and the same bright red against purple (“tu me fais marcher!?? vous me tournez ma clé à molette!!!?”) with the first one so much duller than the second.
And they’d have realized pretty quickly (though not, probably with the speed that Wired Magazine got out an article explaining why some people see #TheDress white and others blue) that the problems weren’t in the materials at all but in the combinations of colours placed next to each other.
But in the 1820s, without the collective mind of the internet to answer all arcane enquiries within hours, the Gobelins owners contented themselves with hiring hotshot scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul as their new director, and having him visit all the dye factories, and then (when that obviously wasn’t the problem) study what happens to colours when you put them next to each other.
Before long he learned how the contrast between complementary colours is what makes them seem to pop.
He also found that if you put two colours next to each other, the edge where they touch seems to have a slightly brighter tone.
The amazing colour wheels he created (there were 21 of them) completely changed how artists would create colour contrasts in their art: Van Gogh had a copy of Chevreul’s The Laws of Contrast of Color and carried it wherever he went. He also carried a lacquered box, full of balls of brightly coloured wool, and laid out the threads in different combinations to get hue and contrast inspiration.
History doesn’t tell if any of the Gobelins colour problems were similar to the issue of white/gold and blue/black that sparked this wonderful #TheDress debate. But I hope it was in there somewhere.
More on Chevreul and other colour adventures in The Brilliant History of Color in Art, Getty Publications, 2014.