The colour conundrum

Spring blooms, from hyacninths to tulips, remind me of a post I've wanted to write for awhile about the decline of dye quality.

What happened to refined fabric colour, those hues of piquant vivacity or delicate subtlety? Too often garments lack depth and richness, and what is sadder than a lacklustre red? Even neutrals like grey suffer under forlorn dye; if you do find an ethereal grey, most others suffer by comparison (and you might be holding an Armani blouse.)

Garment colour is a synergy between the fiber and its dye; some fibers take dye beautifully while others seem to resist, but, outside the luxury level, the full splendour of colour is released only occasionally.

The lone luminous example of forget-me-not blue seems to be owned by Lapo Elkann. The Italians (Elkann's tailors, and this is the luxe level) still care, but European heritage mills are closing by the year. 

Generally, dye quality is proportional to price point, but some mid-range merchants, such as Boden, deliver departures from the usual-suspect shades. (The overall garment quality is another story.) 

The subtle greyed lavender of their Chelsea trousers is notable even if one cannot wear it:

Meanwhile the usual suspects like Talbot's and LL Bean see fit to unleash some um, challenging colours on the world. Whatever her colouring, a woman over 50 can look hard in harsh hues. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who can rock Bold Orchid?

I still miss an Issey Miyake cotton tunic I owned years ago, the colour of an oyster shell crossed with a pinch of late-sunset mauve. These days, I have defaulted to the banality of a great deal of navy, black and grey—which on good days feels like I've found 'my uniform' and on bad, seems like I lost my colour wheel. 

Those neutrals, along with the ecru-through-camel range, are reliable base notes, but where is the pink that's inside a sea shell, or the intersection of blue with purple that conjures twilight? 
Even with black, a quality black reads differently than a flat dye job; I would love to turn 70 in this Altuzarra fringed crepe blazer. (I have just over three years to save.)

This spring, the lilt of a sublime, unexpected combination is a scarce songbird, occasionally glimpsed amid piles of navy-and-white. Kisses to Brora simply for making a linen and cotton sweater in salmon and wisteria.

I am not just talking pale colours, sister, but the mid-saturation hues where superior dye struts its stuff.

J. Crew offer some hard-to find-shades every season. They're showing a good deal of metallic gold this spring, but for those who prefer deeper palettes, they propose metallic navy. Don't see that every day!

We are all searching, which is more work as we age.  

Given my budget, I have better luck buying a neutral top and counting on gems, from precious to glass, to add refined colour. The strategy justifies spending, because a magical piece lifts those neutrals year-round. Splurge a bit for gem quality, which, just like fabric dye, dispirits at the low end.

Shown: chiara b atelier aquamarine, morganite and pearl necklace; price, $1,050.

If clothes are an emblem of our identity, colour is the flag. Why is beautiful colour is so hard to find, given the vast marketplace? 

Too often, I end up with generic items in generic colours. I'm more than ready to crawl out of my city security blanket of black. But I want that coloured item to be so heady, so indelibly interesting that I can see it with my eyes closed.

Just after I wrote that last paragraph, the textile expert and photographer Jan Becker, pinged me from Delhi. She sent a dose of thrilling colour via photos of the progress of her mixed silk ikat-and-print scarves, each one designed by Jan, who has a musical touch with colour, if that makes sense.  

I'm bugging her to open an Etsy shop! Since she visits the Passage, maybe you would like to second the idea?


Madame Là-bas said…
Since I have had grey hair, I have found that those
softer colours with a bit of a glow are the most flattering. I looked at the Brora page and many of their colours would be lovely. I won't be in Britain this year but when I go, I will certainly visit one of their shops.The salmon and wisteria cardigan was definitely a favourite.
Susan B said…
Ooh yes, I'd get one (or more) of those scarves for sure. I've come to rely on scarves to add color. I've also recently become aware of the environmental impact and damage caused by some dyeing processes, and try to find out when I can what dyes were used and how. J.Crew does some really nice colors, but often they are much brighter and more vivid (and sometimes overwhelming) in person than the online images suggest.
LauraH said…
Reading your post, I began to think about my scarves from Kalabander and there they are in the last paragraph. I rely on her beautiful colours and textures to bring interest and colour to my clothes. And they're affordable. Brora and Eric Bompard have some great colours although shopping online can be tricky for accuracy.

So far, at 61, I still wear strong clear colours. Maybe that will change but I find there is no formula that says older women = XX colour type. I see a lot of 'softer' colours that are too dull, chalky, dusty. Lovely clear soft colours are very hard to find. Same with rich, lively navy and dark chocolate, my neutrals.
Swissy said…
This is an on-the-spot posting! I don't like to wear black very much in a tiny country village, so have "defaulted" to navy and grey as base colors. But the availability of strong but subtle accent pieces have virtually disappeared, except at the very high end. Really interesting about dyes..


materfamilias said…
So true. Part of the reason I can spend hours in a good yarn shop is the pleasure of the wonderfully rich colours of artisan-dyed yarns. We spend so much time in environments overlaid with harsh, artificial colours -- it's not surprising, perhaps, that I begin to breathe more deeply in a room with colours coaxed slowly, thoughtfully, often lovingly, from a range of diverse sources. Of course, not all yarn makers are small-batch, organic, etc., but the overall aesthetic privileges this focus. . .
Murphy said…
I can really relate to this post! A friend of mine died recently and requested that her friends wear "spring colors" to her funeral. It is a sad commentary on my dark, neutral wardrobe that I stood in my closet thinking "Does navy blue count as a spring color?" I love color, but I look best in mid-tones, and they are hard to find. I'm not really a scarf person, except for outerwear, so I'm constantly on the lookout for tops, cardis or jackets in flattering hues.
Oh I reiterate that your friend start an etsy shop....I rely on scarves to add that punch of colour.
A woman at French class wore a two piece outfit in a BOLD blue almost cobalt which really popped on her as she has silver hair....she looked energetic and stood out from the class....and I thought I was pushing the envelope with my cream cardigan with black O's paired with my Hermes H scarf in black and white and my dark black jeans!
LPC said…
Don't know much about Etsy per se, but I do agree that finding a way to incorporate a sophisticated approach to color is a worthy investment. So many rewards.
My mother was always furious about this - she made most of her own clothes, even tailored suits - and this is at least 20 years ago. Often the colour spectrum at LLBean and Lands' End is simply hideous, like that odd acid "orchid" (real orchids are things of great beauty). I like deep, rich colours, and most often default to black because I simply don't find any. But as la Duchesse says, many blacks - even in more expensive garments - aren't properly black.
Northmoon said…
I agree, the subtle colour variations of the past are no longer available in reasonably priced clothing. Wearing a scarf isn't always an option. Even in the knitting yarn selection, too often there is a ton of acid bright colour but there are no interesting neutrals such as mushroom, taupe, that blue grey shade of dusk, a pale pale cream etc.
Anonymous said…
I'm really feeling better reading this post and all the lovely comments-I really thought it was just me -that I was being too fussy or not "looking hard enough". I find most things harsh and so unflattering! I agree with Une Femme about the J Crew colours-they are so vivid.I read somewhere lately : the writer saying she didn't have much luck with discount stores-they may have the colour of the moment-but it is never quite "right".
Cathy Wong
Anonymous said…
PS from Cathy Wong
The photo of the scarf is wonderful! Would be nice to be able to buy one from Easy.
And it proves the point here-I'm sure we all had a strong reaction to the beautiful rich colour.
Tiffany said…
I've never been one for bright colours but now that I've gone grey I find it even harder to find the 'right' colours with the sort of subtlety you're talking about. Like others, I often default to scarves to add colour to my very neutral wardrobe ...
Here, the Simons chain sometimes has good colours and fabrics at a reasonable price. But I'll have to go look at, and touch, this knit linen cardigan, in "charbon". It looks like a beautiful grey, but must be seen: 12512/Cardigans/Le+cardigan+forme+libre+pur+lin?/fr/&catId=&colourId=41
Rita said…
I recently saw The 2nd Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and I was fascinated with Judith Densch's wardrobe, and her color combinations. I think the colors there are so nice because of the natural dyes and natural fabrics. I agree the acid colors in stores now are horrible, and synthetic fabrics don't feel comfortable to wear, with possible exception for knit pants and skirts.
I'm sorry, the last post was an error.
Duchesse said…
Mme: Their colours are wonderful; I order by mail.

unefemme: Thanks for pointing out the environmental aspect. Yes, JC do some very bright (too bright for me( colours, but also some 'old classics' like cordovan, which are hard to find.

LauraH: On request, EB send a catalog with a card of colour samples (the actual wool).

materfamilias: A lovely description of the joys of fine wools. And I thought of some of your gorgeous knitted pieces.

hostess: Thanks for the vote! Wish I could see the woman in your class.

LPC: If I am not mistaken, you have bought a pair of earrings on Etsy? So, it would be an online 'shop' like the one you patronized.

lagatta: I agree about Simons and they have some good sales.

Cathy: J Crew warn about that vividness in a rather subtle way, saying "our colours really pop"- but what some do more is explode. The quieter hues, though, can be very well done.

Tiffany: Also, scarves always fit and don't date as rapidly, if ever.

Rita: Oh, yes- as I recall she wore some beautiful scarves, didn't she?

Sandra Sallin said…
I second it. Ready to purchase one of those scarves right now. Love the colors. Love wearing scarves.
moushka26 said…
You are singing my song! I look to Alabama Chanin for soft, complex colours in a great quality cotton knit that I am planning to sewing myself (I've been ill for the past year). Dark colours wash me out, but who wants be reduced to light pink, baby blue, or pale grey (my best colours) at 65?!!!! I need natural fibres that allow air to circulate. If I could afford Natalie's beautiful hand-sewn garments, I'd buy them. They're worth every penny but I'm looking forward to making my own from her sophisticated palette of taupes, greys, blushes and stones. She has an eponymous website.
Jane in London said…
This can certainly be a problem - now that I'm approaching 60, I find that 'neutrals' can be frankly sad-looking on me. I need clever colour to look well and rested, and I don't always want to wear a scarf (I've given up on silk squares altogether because, no matter how I tie them, they now always make me look like The Queen).

Bompard and Brora are great - but frankly not in my normal price range. And I don't really want to save up for a jumper (sweater) and then have to wear it for 6 years; I'd rather be able to buy fresh new colours after 2/3 years if I want to. For some time now I have bought jumpers from English company Woolovers - they do a nice cashmere/merino mix that is a good weight for the significant amount of cross-seasonal weather we have here in England. I have bought jumpers for spring this year in 'warm coral','bluebell', 'cerise' (a punchy pink, but more Schiaparelli than Barbie)and 'kingfisher' (not bright at all - a soft green/slate/blue mix). Their colours are generally quite flattering, I think, though as always with mail order it can be difficult to gauge colours accurately from the website. I have occasionally ordered a colour that I thought would be wonderful for me but turned out not to work at all. I have no connection with this company whatsoever, by the way - other than being a longstanding customer.

Duchesse said…
Jane: I so enjoy your term "clever colour"!

I have looked at Woolovers and the reservation I had was the 'unisex' styling. My head says "OK" and my heart (and bustline) say "This cannot work on me."

I want to wear those beautiful Brora or EB colours more than several years. I retire some for a year or two, then they feel new again (sort of). I make a list and wait for sales.

A merino/cashmere mix is a very pleasing blend (and not easy to find) and your choices sound absolutely delightful.

Also, applause to Woolovers for their size range.
Jane in London said…
Don't worry, Duchesse, only a few styles are unisex - most are just for women! That said, I often buy the unisex classic vee or crew necks in size 'small' - they give me a neat but not tight fit, and have the advantage of the longer length which I like as I a have a long torso.
Duchesse said…
Jane: Good to know, thanks. I was worried the v-neck shoulder would be wide and armhole too deep as mens' jumpers often are cut that way.
Mardel said…
I was out of town and stopped in Neiman's recently for a cosmetic purchase and wandered upstairs. What immediately struck me was the sophistication of the colors in some departments, a far departure from what I find in the run of the mill department store materials where I live. For a person like me who shines in mid tones and colors that are slightly grayed or muted, it is very difficult to find colors that aren't dead. Although I didn't buy, I am reconsidering my options, and think I would spend more and treasure things that truly sang to me.

Then I came home to your post. Interesting. I agree with Mater about yarn stores, but even there, the sophisticated colors are not usually available in the less expensive yarns. But the time it takes to knit makes it worth the investment, to me anyway. Not everyone agrees.

The posts with the most