Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Tie-dye, or: How to dress the part(y)

I realise I am running the risk of being a blog-bore, but I cannot resist mentioning the ties of the leaders of the UK's main political parties. They almost managed to colour-coordinate them in the first live Election Debate on 15 April 2010, with Brown (nice name, shame about the tie), not going for the full-blown Labour shade of red but for a pale pink instead. You wonder how much the PR teams actually think about the issue of tie colours. As Peter Sissons knows better than most people, the shade of your tie can be of enormous importance. In 2002 he failed to wear a black tie when announcing the death of the Queen Mother on national TV and unleashed a media storm.

But to continue with serious talk about the symbolic significance of colour, I was much delighted to read this article in The Guardian earlier this week. Dr Navickas talks about those ties seen in the picture above, but somehow also manages to bring in Lady Georgiana Cavendish, who, in the late 18th century liked to dress in Whig party's colours yellow and blue (or "buff and blue") in order to show her support for the opposition. Caricaturists of the time had a field day, as you can see here:

The lady on the left inThomas Rowlandson's print is Georgiana's friend Mrs Crewe, who made a famous toast to the Whig politicians in 1784:"Buff and blue and all of you."

These are the relevant passages lifted from the article:
Dr Katrina Navickas, a history lecturer at Hertfordshire University, has compared the big three parties' use of colour in their manifestos this year with that of historical elections, as depicted by paintings, cartoons and historical rosettes and clothing on display at the British Museum. Her findings reveal an interesting disparity between modern-day political colours and their predecessors.
Navickas explains: "In the past, political colours were hugely popular. People without the suffrage, such as the poor, would wear rosettes or ribbons in their hair to show their political allegiance, while aristocratic ladies would plan their wardrobes appropriately.
"Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, used to wear whole outfits in the yellow and light blue colours of the Whig opposition. Ordinary people really cared about politics, even women and the working classes, who didn't have the vote, and they made an effort to make a political statement through clothing."
Today Navickas believes that colour symbolism has been watered down – she points out that even Brown wore a pink rather than a traditionally red tie at his first TV debate appearance. "And although red is in Labour's manifesto, it's not the main colour, yellow dominates the cover. The party is still attempting to distance itself from the socialist associations of red in the early 20th century. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats use the colour yellow today even though they don't really have much in common with the 18th-century liberals who first adopted orange. They are trying to invent a long heritage."
But the Tories have retained greatest colour continuity, Navickas says. "Their manifesto is a really dark blue, just like that used in the 18th century. They seem to be harping back to their blue-veined aristocratic roots – they've even adopted the oak tree, very much a symbol of the old Tories." She adds that green is the most transformed colour. "Originally green was a radical colour – it was used in the campaign for suffrage, for example. Now the Tories are fighting with the other parties to claim green as their colour, because, obviously, it's bound up with environmental issues."
You can read the full article here.
Closer to home and my studies, it has been suggested by some researchers that George IV, in his youth a Whig supporter, painted the Brighton Pavilion, in its first incarnation designed by Henry Holland (1787), in the Whig colours blue and buff (buff rendering and blue shutters):
For more on this topic see Mike Jones's excellent book: Set for a King: 200 Years of Gardening at the Royal Pavilion (2006).


  1. And which way do you think the wearer of this will vote?

  2. Thanks for the mention. I hadn't heard of the blue and buff of Brighton Pavilion!

    I've put a couple of corrections on my own blog - - as journalists don't always get all the nuances of historical research right.

    The more historical aspect of my research on the colours of politics will be published in the forthcoming July issue of the Journal of British Studies, in an article entitled 'That Sash will hang you: political clothing and adornment in England, 1780-1840'. There are some good illustrations there, including Georgiana in her blue and buff striped dress.

  3. Dear Katrina, how exciting to get a response from you. Thank you. I will be following your blog and would very much like to read your article on political clothing. A short article by me on Regency colour theory will be published in June by St Andrews University (Journal of Art History). Perhaps we could exchange articles. I am actually in the Royal Pavilion right now, overlooking the gardens and the celebrations of the first day of the Brighton Festival. Will send you more info on the blue an buff Marine Pavilion. Have a lovely weekend. Sascha