Ways of Seeing: A Q+A with Kassia St Clair


An interview with writer, cultural historian and colour expert Kassia St Clair. The author of ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ talks individualism, colour trends over the centuries, and the politics of colour ownership.

CG Cutler and Gross
KSC Kassia St Clair

CG You mention in your book [The Secret Lives of Colour, John Murray Press] that you fell in love with colour inadvertently, whilst studying 18th-century women’s fashions, what exactly did you study?

KSC My degree was straight-forward modern history, I did my dissertation on 18th century women’s history, more particularly, I looked at what women wore to masquerade balls during the 18th century. It involved going to the V&A, trawling through their archives, looking at lots of archived newspaper accounts. I read lots of accounts of parties and something that I noticed is that they were using a colour vocabulary between themselves, that I had absolutely no frame of reference for. The colours only existed in the minds of the people who spoke about it at the time. Over time the physical existence disappeared.

Colours are a cultural creation, we understand what we mean when we say the name of a colour. An example of this is Millennial Pink, this colour exists really in the minds of people, it has a cultural weight. People in the future, wanting to know exactly what colour Millennial Pink is, might have a hard time finding out.

CG There were a number of years between this and your Elle Decoration column, what happened in between? 

KSC I finished my undergrad in 2007 and my first job out of university was at House & Garden magazine, the day I heard that I got the job was the very same day Lehman Brothers crashed – I knew my days were numbered before I even started. True enough, after a year or so, I was let go from my position. I’d already applied to do a Masters at Oxford by that point. After my masters, I got back into journalism; working for 1843 Magazine – formerly knows as Intelligent Life – it was whilst I was working there that I started writing for Elle Decoration. That was back in 2013, I pitched the idea of fully fledged column to the then editor, Michelle Ogundehin, she accepted it and it ran for many years.

“Mixing colours together in an unexpected way, being bold with colour, you’re inviting people to look at you. That feels like a statement of confidence.”

kassia st clair

CG Were you learning about some of the colours as you were going along and sharing it with us? Did you have a handful of colours you knew we had to know the secrets of?

KSC Well, because my degree was in History, a lot of the colours were from the 18th century or historical colours, like historical curiosities, for example there was a very popular colour in medieval England called ‘Goose Turd Green’, which is funny because it was actually a very fashionable colour. Obviously, Elle Deco is a very design-led interiors magazine, so they wanted colours that were more for a contemporary audience. Luckily, ‘modern’ colours also have fantastic stories to tell.

CG Your book has a somewhat less than complimentary section dedicated to beige, we wonder if you feel the same about the greyscale everything trend that has proliferated into popular culture? Does this lack of individualism point to something in wider culture, or it really just a trend?

KSC There is this idea in western culture, specifically , that colour is childish or colour is not serious, or it’s feminine, or the antithesis of intellectual rigour. There’s this idea that to be taken seriously, we should be monochrome, black and white, greyscale, and if you want please stupid people you want to add colour. The most classic example is the iPhone, the first models were in black or white, now they’re available in a plethora of different colours. Obviously, none of this is true but is it something we’re seeing repeated time and time again. It’s all cyclical, periods of great extravagance are often followed by periods of simplicity and minimalism. 

CG Tell us more

KSC An example of this is the Victorian era vs the Edwardian era, the Victorians had a veracious appetite for colour, they had an abundance of dyes at their disposal, the pairings they suggested in Victorian magazines were wild; teals with tawny orange and purple an such, then you find in the 1910s/1920s there was this major shift, monochrome really took over. There has always been an undercurrent of slight prejudice against colour.

“Colours are a cultural creation, they exist in the minds of people”

kassia st clair

CG Cutler and Gross have been known for their colours since the beginning, Tony Gross was famously flamboyant, what does individualism mean to you when it comes to colour in fashion?

KSC I do think the ability to put colours together does amount to bravery. Mixing colours together in an unexpected way, being bold with colour, you’re inviting people to look at you. That feels like a statement of confidence. 

CG In your book, you touch on Vantablack [the scandalised ‘blackest black’ that sculptor/artist Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive artistic rights to in 2016]. What do you make of “owning” colours?

KSC I’m kind of torn about this because I think if you’re an artist, and part of your craft is creating colours, then not everyone has a right to the product of your hours, months or even years of experimentation. This was particularly relevant when artists were mixing their own pigments, or having to layer pigments, three or four hundred years ago, the perfect green might not have existed, so you’d have to layer blues and yellows in whatever proportions.

However, today we’re used to being able to access any colour we want and not think about shades as being reserved for certain people. In the case of Vantablack, which isn’t even really a colour, it’s a material that was created for a very specific purpose [for use in space travel and optics as an application on sensitive materials to help improve the visibility of distant objects being studied] and then suddenly an artist approached them and said “I’m an artist, I’d like to do an exclusive deal with you.” Which was strange to me, because of it’s very nature [Vantablack is made up of tiny delicate carbon tubes which stand like blades of grass which capture almost all light that hits it], it’s not a very good artists material because you can’t touch it. It created an uproar nonetheless. Being told you can’t have access to a colour, in the 21st century, because it belongs to someone else was never going to go down well.

CG Is there seemingly an infinite amount of colours that can created and coined, is there an official body for colour?

KSC There’s really no real way, though there are companies like Pantone and similar, that catalogue colours, their business is making colour uniform for the world to use. Coca Cola for example, they could say “our logo is composed of two colours; red and white. Red is Pantone X and White is Pantone X.” No matter where you are in the world, if you’re a graphic designer say, those colours will be exactly the same, in theory.

CG And if you could create your own colour, what shade would it be and what would you call it?

KSC This is a really tricky one because I spend a lot of my time thinking about colours, researching colours, I’m constantly changing my idea of what my favourite colour is, or what beautiful colours are. I think at the moment I’ve been quite drawn to sunset orange colours, like cocktail coral, but maybe that’s because I’m breastfeeding and can’t have cocktails. 

You can buy a copy of ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by following this hyperlink.