Shades of Blue: Unraveling the Social History of Everyone’s Favorite Color, Part 2

by clé tile | published: Aug 14, 2023

the blue room, picasso c. 1901

if you’ve ever found yourself in a state of serenity sitting in a room of blue, you’re not alone. It’s one of the many reasons why we created our Maiolica de Delft field tile. The soft and subtle shades of washed denim has the power to soothe even the most anxious of souls. But don’t take blue for granted — few colors have led such a storied past. Blue’s staying power as the world’s favorite color is just one way it has entrenched itself in modern culture.

Talk Blue to Me

Many colors weave their way into common expressions but perhaps none more than blue. The color has come to define sadness, bruising, labor forces, rarity, innovation, and even indecency, just to name a few. Idioms like “out of the blue” or “blue sky” directly relate to the color’s association with the vast heavens, where lightning can strike down suddenly or an infinite opportunities are possible.

the monk by the sea, casper david friedrich c. 1808–1810

The origins of other phrases are not always so clear. Some, like “black and blue” and “blue in the face” likely evolved out of the word’s etymology. The Old Norse word bla, meaning lead-colored, gave birth to the today’s English spelling of the word in the sixteenth century. Back then, the word blue referred to a leaden, blackish-blue shade like bruises. The origin story of other phrases remain unknown. For example, the color’s association to lewdness or obscenity (“blue talk”) is still debated.

The term blue-collar to describe factory and labor workers first came into use in 1935, but its roots reach back to the early 17th century. It was during this period that the color blue began losing some of its elite status in Western culture by becoming the color of servant uniforms. Unlike the textiles of the aristocracy, however, servants wore garments dyed with inexpensive woad and indigo. Today, the term blue-collar refers to the indigo-dyed denim shirts favored by labor workers due to their affordability, as well as their ability to hide stains and launder easily.

rosie the riveter poster c. 1940

Today, blue is perhaps most often thought of to express feelings of depression and sadness. Though the origin of this link is unclear, the association became cemented during the romantic era of the 18th and early 19th centuries. During this period, a blue flower became the central embodiment of the movement, symbolizing the eternal longings of a poet’s soul. Artists and authors used the color as an expression of sorrow, grief, loneliness, and pining nostalgia. Blue landscapes, seascapes, and nocturnal scenes became prevalent in Romantic art, reflecting the cultural reverence towards nature and the human experience.

pity, william blake c. 1795

wanderer above the sea of fog, casper david friedrich c. 1870

Artful Blues

Though artists had been using blue since ancient days, the art world’s love of the color took new meaning in the 20th century. From 1900 to 1904 Pablo Picasso began his Blue Period after the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. The monochromatic paintings came to represent his period of deep mourning, depicting outcast subjects like beggars, prostitutes, prisoners.

A hallway with white plaster walls and a dark tile floor.
A sink and mirror over a tile floor with a graphic pattern in a lozenge and rectangle shape.
A hallway with white plaster walls and a dark tile floor.

paintings from picasso’s blue period c. 1901–1904

A sink and mirror over a tile floor with a graphic pattern in a lozenge and rectangle shape.

In 1960, blue was reinvented once again by French artist Yves Klein. Like Picasso, the artist became obsessed with the color, but for different reasons. Seduced by the deep sky and sea of the French Mediterranean, Klein began to experiment with his own take on ultramarine. For the artist, Klein blue represented his spirituality, but his unsparing use of the color, not only on canvas, but to all sorts of objects including a bust of Venus, led to the color’s associations with social revolution, freedom, and counterculture.

paintings by yves klein — images courtesy of phaidon

Today’s Modern Blue

Even the world of fashion has felt blue’s powerful allure. The color helped establish Christian Dior as an eminent couturier when he released his first collection in 1947. His New Look celebrated feminine extremes with plushly pleated skirts, rounded shoulders, and cinched waists, presented in a palette of deep blues, blacks, and whites.

A hallway with white plaster walls and a dark tile floor.

dior dress on the cover of vogue, april 1947 — image courtesy of vogue

A sink and mirror over a tile floor with a graphic pattern in a lozenge and rectangle shape.

blue dior coat, 1947 — image courtesy of v&a collections

Since this time, designers have continued to return to the color for its drama and cultural meaning. In 2010, Giorgio Armani began his own blue period when he presented his La Femme Bleue collection in inky shades inspired by the Tuareg people of Saharan Africa. Armani’s devotion to the color returned in his 2019 Rhapsody in Blue collection, which featured a range of deep blues and textures ranging from cobalt velvets to midnight satins.

Of course, no story of blue would be complete without a mention of Meryl Streep's soliloquy on cerulean blue in The Devil Wears Prada. The popular exchange is often cited as an example of the movement of fashion trends from high status designers to Casual Corner bargain bins. What many don’t realize is that the dialog is actually the product of Hollywood make believe! The 2002 cerulean gowns and military jackets by Oscar de la Renta and Yves Saint Laurant, cited as the starting point for cerulean’s trickle down, never actually existed. Instead, the colors used by de la Renta and YSL that year were primarily in less dramatic shades of gray, taupe, and black. Despite this, the memorable scene helped secure an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep and helped immortalize the sky-blue color in the minds of 21st century popular culture.

the devil wears prada

Today, blue continues to delight as well as evolve. With a rich cultural history and a chameleon-like way of shifting perceptions, one thing’s for certain — for blue, the sky’s the limit.