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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect phone number for the Textile Museum. The correct number is 202-667-0441.

A Color With Many Shades of Meaning

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By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 20, 2008

"B lue," the exhibition at the Textile Museum, begins with jeans -- a pair of 19th-century Levi's found in 1997 in a California barnyard. They show their age. The man who wore them wore them hard.

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They didn't come with belt loops. He held his pants up with suspenders. There's a hole in a back pocket, probably worn through by the metal tools he carried, and the pocket is riveted, a feature given up (because rivets scratch the furniture) when Levi's went genteel. This pair is not genteel. Everything about them -- especially the color -- says tough, dirty work.

That's still one of blue's messages. Long before blue denim was youthified and sexified and nuanced to a fare-thee-well, blue was the color of toil, worn by the lower orders.

"Blue was formerly the distinctive colour for the dress of servants, tradesmen, etc.," says the Oxford English Dictionary; "also of paupers." In France blue-collar workers still wear blue cotton coats.

But there's more to blue than that. It's the spaciest of colors. Lipstick, blood and stop signs quickly concentrate attention. Blue, instead, diffuses it. Airy as the sky, extensive as the sea, it sets the mind afloat.

You can't imagine a blue stop sign.

The "Blue" show is not a blockbuster. The Textile Museum, in its quiet S Street mansion, isn't into blockbusters. Its mood is rather sweet, miniature, old-fashioned: The brash new Newseum could swallow the little Textile Museum at a gulp. The fragments of old fabrics from India and Egypt, the Japanese kimono, the Mao jacket from China and the works of fabric art displayed in the exhibit don't begin to exhaust blueness. Its real theme is indigo. But the show's reflections on blueness are enough to invite your thoughts to riff.

The color has no edges. Blue's meaning, like the sea's, is fluid. Blue reaches around opposites. In Britain, for example, it isn't just the color for storekeepers and servants. It's also for the toffs. The blue-blooded aristocrats who play at antique games at Eton and at Harrow, at Oxford and Cambridge, do so in their blues.

If blue clothing were not cheap, paupers wouldn't wear it. The color, one imagines, ought to carry with it notions of impoverishment, but in the Renaissance, blue ranked with gold and silver as the costliest of all.

The blue robes of the Virgin in Jan van Eyck's "The Annunciation" at the National Gallery of Art, or the blue cape on her shoulders in Sandro Botticelli's "The Virgin Adoring the Child" at the same museum, are not only there to make the viewer think of heaven. They also evoke cash -- the blue pigments the painters used could cost vast amounts. Cheap blues often faded, but the costliest ultramarines did not. Ultramarine means beyond the sea, which is where the color came from. Derived from lapis lazuli brought all the way from Badakhshan (in what is now Afghanistan), the best grades of the color were exceptionally expensive. Andrea del Sarto's 1515 contract for "Madonna of the Harpies" was typically specific: The blue paint for the Virgin's robe must be worth at least five gold florins per ounce.

Blue is down and dirty, too. But blue is also high. While the blueness of the Virgin's dress signifies perfection, the same color when worn in "Devil in a Blue Dress," or by Monica Lewinsky, does not mean that at all.

Blue movies are obscene. Bluenoses and bluestockings are particularly aware of this, and fiercely disapprove.


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