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Three Colours

One of the most striking and classic colour combinations you will find (apart form black and white) is blue, white and red. They are the easiest, most failsafe colours to match too – any shades will work – and provided whatever you choose to put next to your face suits your complexion, you cannot fail to look great.

Undoubtedly, these colours simply look wonderful together, but where does this notion of classicism rise from?

Arguably, the strongest connection of this trio is to patriotism – the French tricolour and the American flag immediately spring to mind – but did you know that 35 flags of the world utilise these three colours? Quite a number of them feature stars (or at least one star) and stripes too, and if you can consider the Union Jack a little evocative of stripey-ness, then both the Australian and New Zealand flags could also be described as starry and stripey. These colours are eye-catching from a distance, which is why they are used in flags.

Of course this colour combination is also associated with the nautical look, a perennial favourite with the fashion industry. The nautical look links to the navy (it’s called that for a reason) and inevitably back to stars, stripes, uniforms and national colours.

Could anything be more American x nautical than Tommy Hilfiger’s look? Spring/Summer 13A casual nautical look perfect for boatingCrisp white and red and a sea breeze (click through for more fresh fashion inspiration)Blue and red are contrasting primary colours. Throw white and stripes into the mix and suddenly there are dozens of possibilities to create a strong, graphic look. While light blues will certainly look great with red, if you are trying to create a nautical flavour, stick to medium and dark shades of blue. Go full steam ahead with cooler shades of these colours to evoke the nautical theme.

But if you are not after a nautical theme? Steer clear of stripes and silver or gold buttons (not to mention epaulets!), and try out a warm tomato red instead. Or throw some different patterns into the mix, such as polka dots or other geometrics, like this enlarged ikat print in white and two shades of blue, or a floral print.


Blue is the world’s most popular colour, according to recent polls. It is associated with the sky, sea, ice, cold and sadness, and more abstractedly with harmony, faithfulness and confidence. Perhaps these latter notions are associated with the history of the colour’s common usage, namely with military uniforms and worker’s denim overalls (security, loyalty) and blue suits (solid and successful businessmen).

Vintage sailor inspired fashion from a 1958 Sears catalogueAdorable sweater from YumiLOVE Charlotte Olympia’s Plain Sailing pumps!The Egyptians associated blue with the sky and divinity, and protection from evil. In Africa and Asia blue dye was made from lapis lazuli or azurite, and the cost of importing it was so high that the Egyptians created their own blue pigment by grinding silica, lime, copper and alkalai and heating it to 800–900°C. Known as Egyptian Blue, it is considered the first synthetic pigment. They used it to paint wood, papyrus and canvas, as well as a glaze in faience. In the 9th century, Chinese artisans used cobalt to create the famous blue and white porcelain, which sparked a craze for Chinoiserie when it was first imported to Europe in the 14th century.

the dandy Beau Brummell made the blue suit ubiquitous eveningwear for men in the Regency period

In the Middle Ages, blue was a cheap dye made from woad, and it was not worn by the upper classes, who favoured red and purple instead. It was not until Louis IX of France began wearing all blue that it became popular with the elite of Europe. Centuries later, the dandy Beau Brummell made the blue suit ubiquitous eveningwear for men in the Regency period, long before the black tuxedo of the twentieth century. While black suits were de rigeur for late 19th century businessmen, blue or grey suits became a more popular choice in the 20th century.


Indigo cake – the larger piece measures 2cmOriginally, indigo was a natural dye extracted from plants, although today nearly all commercial dye is produced synthetically. It is one of the oldest dyes to be used in textiles, and India is considered to be the oldest centre of indigo dyeing, supplying indigo to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era (332 BC–AD 395). Such a strong association to the blue dye did India have, that it gave its name to the colour: indigo comes from the Greek word for dye, indikón, meaning Indian. The Romans latinised it to indicum, which passed into Italian, then finally the English indigo.

The leaves of the tropical plant, indigofera, were soaked in water and fermented; the resultant liquid was mixed with lye, pressed into cakes, dried and then powdered. The powder was mixed with other various substances to produce differing shades of blue and purple.

Indigo is commonly used to dye cotton cloth, and smaller amounts are used to dye silk and wool. Perhaps the most famous use of indigo is in denim jeans, invented by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis in 1873. A much older antecedent however is the navy blue of military uniforms – contrasted with white – that were first created for the British Royal Navy in 1748. Other navies around the world subsequently adopted the use of the colour too.

Perhaps the most famous use of indigo is in denim jeans, invented by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis in 1873.

The first synthesis of indigo was created in 1878 by a German chemist, and the second two years later. By 1897 a commercially feasible manufacturing process was in use, and the production of natural indigo dropped. In 1897, 19,000 tons of indigo was made from plant sources; in 2002 17,000 tons of synthetic indigo was produced globally.


Woad (click through for a story on Nudie Jean’s woad-dyed collection)Anything so rare is always prized, and owing to the expense and difficulties of importing the dye to Europe, indigo was referred to as Blue Gold. Throughout the Middle Ages, indigo remained an uncommon – and therefore expensive – commodity in Europe, and woad was used instead. Often associated with the Picts who painted and tattooed their bodies with it, the use of woad in fact goes as far back as the ancient Egyptians, who, among other things, dyed the cloth wrappings applied to their mummies.

Woad is a dye chemically identical to indigo, and is also derived from a plant base. After the Portuguese discovered a sea route to India, the indigo trade eased, but France and Germany outlawed imported indigo in the 16th century to protect the local woad dye industry.


Red has many connotations, some positive and some negative. It is associated with passion, beauty, happiness and good luck, as well as more ominous notions of danger, fire, anger, prostitution and warning. It is the colour of blood, rubies – and the fruit that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is commonly depicted as red (scholars argue variously it could have been an apple, pomegranate, pear or fig, among others).

In many languages, the word for the colour is defined by its likeness to blood; in Russian the word for red has its origins in the Slavic word meaning beautiful, while the modern Portuguese comes from the Latin word for little worm!

in Russian the word for red has its origins in the Slavic word meaning beautiful

In ancient Egypt the colour red was connected with life, health and victory. The Byzantine emperors used red banners. Kings, princes and cardinals wore red costumes, for red was a colour that signalled status and wealth. Red is of course an important colour in the Chinese culture: a noble colour, it was a badge of rank and was used not only in clothing, but in imperial architecture too.

During the French Revolution, red became a symbol of liberty, and many revolutionaries wore a red Phyrgian cap, or liberty cap – which were modelled after the caps worn by freed slaves of ancient Rome. Subsequently the colour red became associated with socialism.

Christian Louboutin’s red heelsLouis XIV of France famously wore red heels

Today Christian Louboutin’s shoes are famous for their red heels, but it was the Sun King Louis XIV who, four hundred years ago, wore red heels (and beautiful silk stockings) to show off his gorgeous legs. In 17th century France, red was the colour of power; it was associated with palaces, and Versailles. Some fifty years later, Madame de Pompadour, mistress to the Louis XV, redecorated Versailles from red velvet to her favoured red-coloured stripes and prints in cotton and chintz.


Cochineal (click image and jump through to an interesting story on artisanal dyeing with natural cochineal)Where did red come from? Carmine is a name for a deep shade of red on the cooler side of the colour wheel. It is also a type of acid extracted from a South American and Mexican scale insect called a cochineal. It secretes an acid to deter predation by other insects, but the Aztecs and Mayans discovered they could extract carminic acid from the insect to make a dye. The acid is mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also called cochineal. 

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, cochineal was exported to Europe, and by the 17th century, as far as India. It was as highly prized as indigo, even being quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. The exporters kept its exact source a secret, and the European importers weren’t quite sure if the dried cochineal pellets were a berry, a bug or a mineral. Cochineal became Mexico’s second most important export after silver.

the European importers weren’t quite sure if the dried cochineal pellets were a berry, a bug or a mineral

In the middle of the 19th century, the appearance of the artificial dye alizarin crimson – as well as many others – caused the cochineal trade to drop sharply, causing significant financial shock in Spain as a major industry was virtually extinguished.

The breeding of cochineal insect for use in the modern textile industry continues more for the sake of tradition rather than to satisfy any demand. However, more recently it has become commercially viable again for use in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic (mainly for lipstick and rouges) industries, as many artificial dyes have been found to be carcinogenic, though cochineal can cause anaphylactic shock in rare cases.


White is associated with innocence, perfection, cleanliness, lightness, purity and goodness. In ancient Egypt, it was associated with the goddess Isis, while the Roman goddess Vesta was dressed in white robes. For the Romans, the white toga was ubiquitous for ceremonial occasions, which was to inspire the queen of another empire millenia later. 

In the Middle Ages the Christian church adopted it, associating it with the Roman symbolism of purity, sacrifice and virtue. The white unicorn, as a symbol of purity, chastity and grace, was often depicted in tapestries and manuscripts of this era. Able to be captured only by a virgin, the unicorn was often portrayed in the lap of the Virgin Mary. Also in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, white was worn by widows as a colour of mourning – the complete antithesis of today’s funereal black.

in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, white was worn by widows as a colour of mourning

The empire line, popularised by the Empress JoséphineDuring the time of the French Revolution, the Empire Style popularised by Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s consort, was modelled after the white dress of ancient Rome. In the centuries following, white became the universal colour of both men and women’s underwear, as well as bed linen, because these items were washed in boiling water, which would cause colours to fade. (When the linen was finally worn out, it was turned into high-quality paper – it is amusing to reflect that some of the drawings hanging in the art galleries of the world might once have swathed someone’s bottom!)

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress

It was Queen Victoria who popularised the white wedding gown in 1840 (although she was not the first royal to have worn it to be married in). Before she wore her modest silk-satin number, bridal gowns could be any colour – probably a bride wore her favourite. Victoria’s choice of white was considered unusual at the time. (Of course other colours are worn in other cultures.) Prior to the Victorian era, black was a popular colour for Scandinavian bride!


Natural fibres are not pure white of course, but rather cream or light brown. To produce white textiles, fabric must be bleached. The most common bleach today is chlorine, first invented in the 18th century, and then peroxide which was invented in 1818, but not used for bleaching until 1882; it did not become commercially viable until the 1930s.

In ancient times, as early as 300 BC, soda ash, prepared from burned seaweed, was used to clean and whiten cloth by the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans. The latter had two words for white, one signifying plain white (albus), and the other brighter white (candidus). A man running for public office in Rome brightened his toga with chalk. It was called a toga candida, the origin of candidate. Candere, meaning to shine, or to be bright, is the source of our words for candle and candid. 

Bleachfield, by Jan Breughel (II), c. 1650

Before the invention of chlorine bleach, cloth was bleached by the whitening action of sun and water, a lengthy process. Fabric was first soaked in a lye solution for days, then ‘bucked’ or washed clean, after which the cloth was laid out in what was known as a bleachfield or croft (an open area of land), and exposed to the sun. The fabric lay on the grass sometimes for weeks at a time. This was repeated five or six times, depending upon the degree of whiteness required, and then the fabric was treated in milk or buttermilk before being bucked and crofted again. The process originated in the Netherlands, but quickly spread throughout Europe. Huge tracts of land were utilised for crofting when it could have been used for farming, but it is testament to how desirable pure white cloth was. 


Today we have few fashion edicts as far as choice of colour. There are trends of course, and Pantone does try to impose a Colour of the Year on the entire world (my natural contrariness makes me immediately wish to repudiate any liking for said colours), but the revolutions in the textile industry over the centuries mean that rich or poor alike can wear whichever colour they like, whenever they like.

The only exceptions (in Western culture at least) being, perhaps, white and black: one shouldn’t wear white to a wedding so as not to upstage the bride (unless you know for a fact she won’t be wearing it!), and it would be considered poor taste to wear anything but a sober colour to a funeral – if not black, then dark grey or some other gloomy shade at least.

So complementary to one another, blue, red and white will always be a festive combination, worn nautical style or otherwise – whether you are a blue-blooded royal princess or just a regular girl-next-door. 


View the gallery for more!

I am so in love with this colour combination I wear it often – check out the Red, White & Striped gallery for inspiration.

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