What colors do you see in history?
I’ve begun hand quilting a quilt my grandmother began over 100 years ago. This quilt is a riot of colors and designs in floral shapes and it has me thinking about how I think about color. And how those thoughts may be shaping my writing.
My novel in progress is set pre-World War I. For inspiration, I’ve looked at photos from that time. Photos of people and buildings and cars and landscapes. Of course, these photos are all in black and white. I’ve toured exhibits of period clothing from that time. The vast majority of these clothes are blue, black, gray and the cream of muslin.
As I look at the colors in this quilt created during that very same era, I realize I’ve made assumptions about what fabrics people had available to them. That their clothing was more drab or uninteresting or plain.
I’m not the only one to jump to conclusions about color. Take a look at the Greek and Roman statues. We see them as white marble. But, there are folks who make a convincing case that when these statues were new, the sculptors painted them in vivid colors. We’ve come to expect to see white; adding color is jarring.
Same thing with dinosaurs. Since all we’ve had are the bones, no one knew what color these ancient creatures really were. But research suggests they were anything but the drab reptile gray-green-brown we see in movies and museums, particularly those dinosaurs with feathers.
There may have been practical reasons for most people to stick with navy, black, brown, gray and cream for their clothes 100 years ago. Keeping them clean, for instance. Or having them appear to be clean when you can’t throw everything in a washing machine every few days. The basic colors could find more uses across gender and age and time, so economics may have come into play. But that doesn’t mean their color palette didn’t include all the colors of the rainbow.
I don’t know exactly what all the colors in this quilt will mean to how I write my novel. Perhaps nothing at all. But with my grandmother’s quilt added to the artifacts from which I draw inspiration, I trust I’ll think of the time as more brilliant.
How do you think about color when you think about history? Authors, have you been caught thinking in black and white? Readers, what do you expect from authors when they show you another time?