The Trickle Down of Colour from Canvas to Catwalk

Susan Mc Ateer

One of the key inspirations for starting The Sceal was Miranda Priestly’s (played by Saint Meryl Streep) monologue about cerulean blue in The Devil Wears Prada. When a naive, pre-makeover Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) sniggers at a roomful of vogue stylists and editors deciding between two seemingly similar belts, Priestly (aka a thinly veiled Anna Wintour) responds by tracing the history of the cheap blue sweater Andy is wearing. The sweater is not just blue, it is cerulean blue. Priestly rhymes off the historical trajectory of this shade, noting that it was used by Oscar de la Renta for a collection of gowns in 2002, followed by Yves Saint Laurent who adopted the colour for military jackets, triggering countless other designers to use cerulean blue until it trickled down to the high street. This speech winded Andy and your humble Sceal writers. The stories, details and decisions that all come together to dictate what we wear, and how we wear it Blows. My. Mind. 

That Priestly’s defining monologue is centred around a shade of blue strikes a particular chord with me. I wrote my art history dissertation on the colour blue. Confession: I didn’t go in the direction I wanted with my research because I didn’t trust myself. I wanted to focus on contemporary art but an intimidating tutor and my newness to the period put me off. So I settled into what I was more comfortable with and wrote about Picasso’s blue period alongside a Swedish symbolist artist; everyone's comfort zone, right?

The history of the colour blue in art is fascinating and I could gush on but there have been some great articles written on it so I’ll spare you. While this is well chronicled, the relationship between the colour blue in art and fashion is fascinating, but less explored. Artist and designers often come together to collaborate, and designers are often influenced by art, but there are more opaque stories and connections behind the trickle down of colour from canvas to catwalk.

Yves Klein (1928-1962) is one of the most famous artists to invent and patent a colour. Lying on a beach in Nice following the end of World War Two, a teenage Klein played a game with two friends where they divvied up the universe. One claimed the earth, the other words, and Klein the sky. Looks like even as a teenager Klein was a conceptual rascal. Pursuing a career as an artist, Klein’s first solo exhibition was held in 1954 where he presented monochromatic canvases of orange, pink, yellow and blue. He wasn’t too pleased with the pretty placid response from the audience so he thought he would really stick it to them by focusing on a sole colour in his practice; blue. He considered blue to be the most limitless, infinite colour, and his commitment to this monochromatic palette stretched so far that he patented a vibrant synthetic hue naming it International Klein Blue (IKB). He probably never even looked at another colour. 

Yves Klein monochrome work at Tate Liverpool 2017

Yves Klein monochrome work at Tate Liverpool 2017

While I normally turn up my nose at the arrogant gestures of male artists (let’s be real, a lot of modernist male artists were not great people) I can’t help but find the confidence and ridiculousness of Klein’s work and approach endearing. At an exhibition opening he served a unique cocktail of gin, cointreau and methylene blue which turned the guest’s urine blue; they were pretty much pissing art. Another time the invitations were postcards in his own IKB with IKB stamps, which were canceled by the French postal service but still made their way to the invitees; a blue envelope under a blue counter to a postman perhaps? 

IKB is a particularly bold blue which verges on purple. It’s hardly surprising that such a saturated tone would filter through visual culture. Designer Raf Simons  (who you might know from the ‘Dior et Moi’ documentary or fanboy A$AP Rocky’s music) has always been blatant about the importance and influence of art in his work "I need art...I cannot live without it. Ce n'est pas possible. It's like air." We hear ya brah. While Simons has worked directly with artists, including his collaboration with Sterling Ruby, his work is imbued with visual cues and references to art and artists. The footwear in his 2008 spring/summer collection featured a pop of International Klein Blue. It’s quite a subtle reference but it completely speaks to Simons’ aesthetic of incorporating cultural reference points into his designs that you only connect on reflection. He went further with his use of IKB while he was creative director of Jil Sander. His transition from slithers of the colour to entire outfits runs in parallel to Klein’s development of the colour from one on his palette to the sole focus of his practise. Jil Sanders menswear spring collection 2011 saw full suits rendered in IKB alongside overcoats, shorts and even the heels of black brogues splashed with the colour. During his time at Sanders the designer said that he wanted to ‘free Jil from itself’. In the process it feels as though he freed IKB from gallery walls. 

A more literal approach was seen recently at French fashion house Celine. Their spring 2017 ready to wear collection features two dresses which pretty much take a Klein canvas and transform it into a dress. In 1962 Klein conducted a performance piece where he covered three naked female models in IKB paint and pulled them along giant canvases on the floor, while others imprinted their bodies on the canvas. The resulting works titled Anthropometrie are visually abstract, but in certain works the imprint of the female body is clear. These canvases throw up all kinds of ideas; they exist as a document of a performance but are works of art in their own right? The female nude, a staple of art history, is made literal but also obscure, and the burning question; were the models stained blue for weeks like Tobias Funke? This year Celine took an image from the Anthropometrie series which has clear impressions of the women’s bodies, and printed them on white dresses. Shown at fashion week, models wore reproductions of other model’s bodies. This is getting really meta. 

There are so many other stories of blue pigments migrating from an artist’s imagination to what we wear. When Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Piere Bergee fell in love with Marrakech they bought the then crumbling Jardin Majorelle, a villa with surrounding gardens. The property had previously belonged to French artist Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962), who like Saint Laurent, fell hard for Morocco. Majorelle, much like Klein, developed his own blue pigment which he named after himself; these lads were not messing around when it came to legacy. The artist painted his studio and gardens in this electric, striking blue which honestly is a knockout. Saint Laurent and Bergee did their civic duty and bought the property in 1980 to save it from it’s fate as a hotel development. Amen. Morocco was a huge influence on Saint Laurent’s work and countless collections were modeled on Berber culture and tradition. While he didn’t incorporate Majorelle blue in a big way in his collections, the Saint Laurent house created Bleu Majorelle no.18 nail varnish. Will somebody please make a hypnotic nail art video with this colour?

Majorelle Gardens. Image: Luc Viatour

Majorelle Gardens. Image: Luc Viatour

The role that art plays in our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not, is indisputable. Whether it’s a sweater picked up on sale or a nail varnish, we all participate. So next time you see somewhere wearing what looks like International Klein Blue or Bleu Majorelle on their nails, make like Meryl and launch into your informed monologue.