Blue: Ten Surprising Facts about the Color Blue

We all know the sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and the flag is (red, white, and) blue. Some of us have blue eyes, or blue blood, or are in a blue mood. And chances are you’re wearing something blue today. But how much do you know about the history of the color blue?

In Blue: The History of a Color, historian and symbologist Michel Pastoureau takes readers through the different meanings and uses of blue throughout Western history. Pastoureau’s fascinating anecdotes and lavish illustrations remind us that “color is first and foremost a social phenomenon.”

Originally published in 2000 as the first title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the histories of colors, Blue is now back in print.

Here are ten surprising facts about blue:

1. In ancient Rome, blue was associated with barbarians. Wearing blue was looked down on as a sign of eccentricity or mourning, and blue eyes were considered a sign of bad character or a physical deformity.

2. The uses and meanings of blue in Europe shifted sharply when it became the color of Mary’s cloak during the development of the cult of the Virgin in the twelfth century. From depictions of Mary, blue spread to other religious imagery.

3. Because of the low usage of blue in ancient Greek and Rome, researchers in the 1800s wondered if the ancient Greeks and Romans could even see the color blue. (They could.)

4. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, merchants of woad (a blue plant-based dye) and madder (a red plant-based dye) competed fiercely and even violently to discredit each other’s colors.

5. During the Reformation, blue was classed with white, black, gray and brown as an “honest” color.

6. Blue was the symbolic color of the French Revolution, but France had trouble maintaining a large enough supply of indigo dye to keep its military dressed in blue. In 1829, infantrymen were ordered to wear red pants instead. They switched back to blue, however, in 1915, after the visibility of their bright red pants led to mass casualties in the first year of the Great War.

7. Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther popularized blue coats for young men. The character Werther wears a “simple blue dress coat” with a yellow vest and trousers. Goethe saw blue and yellow as symbolic opposites, with blue being positive (active, warm, and bright) color and yellow being negative (passive, weak, and cold).

8. Between 1910 and 1950, black uniforms and clothing gave way to navy blue in one of the most important fashion events of the century.

9. Levi Strauss denim jeans were the first garments to have the brand name displayed on the outside. This was done to distinguish them from competing blue jeans brands Lee and Blue Bell (now Wrangler).

10. More than half of American adults today say blue is their favorite color. Pastoreau suggests that this statistic be taken with a grain of salt, even as he cites it as evidence of just how far blue has come since antiquity.