Monday, September 8, 2008

What Color Isn't

Our world is filled with a multitude of colors in every shade and tint imaginable. We don't live in a black and white world with only a few shades of grey for contrast. So it is not surprising that people in all cultures throughout history have talked and written about color. It is also not surprising that color, for those various cultures, has become associated with certain ideas, traits and actions. What we need to understand, however, is that these color associations are all artificial, all manufactured. And in some cases the connection between the color and the idea associated with it stretches credulity to the breaking point.

Let's take red. For some, red is the color of harlotry. We talk about "The Scarlet Letter" or the "Scarlett Woman." However, red can also be the color of great achievement--"It was a red-letter day in history." Other times red is the color of anger--"I was so angry I saw red." "A red haze came over him." Red is for some people the color of financial problems--"The company is in the red." "That project is full of red ink." Red is the color of aggression--think the "Redcoats" during the American War of Independence. Red also serves as a warning sign that things may not be as they should--"His actions raised a red flag." Red tells us to stop what we are doing--red lights and red stop signs. To be caught by someone in the middle of doing something wrong is to be caught "red-handed."

And yet, red is also the color of life and love--hearts are red, blood is red, and red roses say "I love you." Red color lets the sailor know how to proceed--"Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning." In Asian cultures red signifies good luck and prosperity. We connect red to to temperature--"red hot"--and we think of red when we think of warmth. To go out and party and have a good time is "to paint the town red." To receive special/royal treatment is to have the "red carpet" rolled out for you. I don't hold with most superstitious beliefs and rituals, but it is not by accident that those who flock to buy the bands sold in Israel are buying red bands. Red is thought to guard against the "evil eye," an evil that is represented by black. Sometimes red is associated with positive things, and sometimes it is associated with negative things. And yet, with perhaps the exception of the sailor's motto and the sometimes color of blood, there is nothing "natural" about the connection of red with all these ideas.

Now let's look at black. Black is not a "happy" color for the most part. It's somber. We associate black with evil--ever see a witch dressed in red? Black is the color of night, a time when "monsters" come out to do their deeds under cover of darkness. Days we remember with fear and with hatred we refer to as a "black day in history." Some of the greatest scourges in history have been black ones--The Black Death and the Black Plague. Black is associated with things that are illegal, for instance "black market goods." To exclude/ostracize someone socially or in business is to "black ball" them or "black list" them. Extort or take money from someone by threatening him or her and you are "black mailing" them. If you are in disgrace or out of favor with someone you are in their "black books." Black is associated with secrecy and with misinformation--a blackout of news about a particular topic or "black operations." Black is associated with failures of some types--an electrical power blackout. Black is what we use to hurt others--"to blacken someones name."

Black is the color of loss--"It's like he disappeared into a black hole." Black is associated with negative emotions--he was in a "black mood." One of its few positive connotations is in finance--a company's books are "in the black." In fairly recent history we have come to associate black with elegance--and thanks to George "Beau" Brummel for foisting that upon us in the English Regency time period. But at the same time black was and is associated with death, in the color of mourning clothes and armbands. But as with red, there is nothing "natural" about the connection of black with all these ideas.

Overall, red has more positive connotations than black does. Red is mostly conceived of falling on the "good" side of the good/bad divide, and black is mostly seen on the "bad" side.

Why pick on black and red? I'm frum, and the frum world, or at least parts of it, have turned black and red into a battleground. Red is out, and black is in. Black is pious, black is self-effacing (if not self-erasing), black is tsniusdik. Black is the color of modesty. Red says look at me, notice me. Red is prost. Red is what "they" wear, not what we wear. Or so the story goes. And it's not only red that is enjoined in the battle. Other than dark brown or perhaps deep navy blue, all colors join red as being "inappropriate."

We are told that the world and all that is in it is ours to use. And that world that God gave us doesn't come in black and white. There is no black in a rainbow. Look around at the natural world and you discover that black is hardly the dominant hue. We don't decorate our homes, our personal environments, in all black and white; most normal people would find such an environment as lacking something essential. Psychologists long ago showed that people are drawn to warm colors and are repelled by cold colors, black being the coldest of them all. If black represents absence or lack, just what is it that we are trying to show we are lacking when we deck ourselves out in all black with perhaps a touch of white--perhaps?

So yes, all associations between colors and ideas are artificial with no actual correlation. There is no reason, no logical reason, why black should be the color of frumkeit. There is no real reason why frum girls should walk around looking like bad penguin imitations.

And don't wave at me the clothing colors of our long ago ancestors that we believe have been passed down through the ages. Read a bit of history and you will discover that ancient clothing colors depended on what natural materials were available to make dye from and how advanced a given people was in the art of dyeing. It depended on how much money was available to a person, since some dye sources were rare and were expensive. It also depended on the climate. People long ago figured out that black colored material absorbs heat and that light colored material reflects it outward. I'll go on record as saying that our early ancestors in Israel weren't wearing black in the desert. The natural linen and cotton and wool available to them would have been white or cream in in their natural color and would have made for sensible clothing in the heat of a desert. And please, please don't get me started on the clothing color of Polish noblemen.

My favorite color has always been red, although I love a whole slew of other colors as well. Red has figured in my decorating and it has always figured in my wardrobe. Let's get one thing straight; if you think that my wearing red or any colors other than black or white makes me less frum than you are, less tsniusdik than you are, that's your OPINION, and not a God-given fact. There are no one-to-one correlations between a color and a trait or action or thought or idea. And from what I have observed of today's frum people, the women in particular, it's time to send black back to wherever it came from and bring out God's colors once again.

For a previous, related discussion you might want to look at The Clothes that Wear Us .


Anonymous said...

Applause! Applause! I can't stand the idea of having to wear black all the time and I don't do it either. But then I don't live in Brooklyn or Lakewood or Beit Shemesh B. Have we really lost our brains to the point where we will stone people for wearing the "wrong" color? That's not frumkeit. That's fanaticism fueled by stupidity.

Anonymous said...

If the purpose for wearing all black is so that frum Jews won't be noticeable, that frum women won't bring attention to themselves, which would be more tsniusdik, then the black color fails miserably. In a world full of color we stand out very noticeably when we wear all black. And it's just plain depressing. I like color and I wear it and if someone else doesn't like it isn't there something much more important they could be working on like solving Jewish poverty?

Anonymous said...

I love wearing colors, even though I live in Brooklyn. I wear shirts in pretty much all colors, but the red ones are my favorites. My handbag and warm winter boots are red. My fall coat is red.

They'd better not try to stop me from wearing my tzniusdik clothing in colors that look good on me.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever tried to find your wife when looking over a mechitzah at a simcha? All you see is one solid mass of black. I spotted what I was sure was my wife from the back because I remembered what her suit looked like. Tapped her on the shoulder and a strange woman turned around. Not just the black color the same--4 people wearing the same suit. Talk about a uniform!

Anonymous said...

These associations are all cultural. There are societies where red is the color of mourning.

concernedjewgirl said...

AMEN sister! :-)
My favorite color is Red too!

Anonymous said...

I used to think this was just a married versus single problem, that it was the singles that had to follow the clothing color rules or it could cause problems for shidduchim. But it's not just a singles problem any more. People talk about married women too.

When we were first married and lived in Brooklyn the rav of our shul told my husband in a very kind manner that my wearing a raspberry colored suit to shul was not sending the right message about who we really were and what we believed in.

My hubby finished college and we were out of Brooklyn in a flash. When my frumkeit was judged by the color of my suit then we were so living in the wrong place.

You want to know one reason for so many shalom bayis issues in marriages today? Way too many people mixing in into what should be private business between a husband and a wife. And clothing color is one of those places that the rabbis should not be mixing into.

Anonymous said...

Why the color of what a single girl wears should have anything to do with shidduchim is way beyond me. I'll add another shalom bayis problem to the one Leah mentioned--shidduchim that are made on the basis of a girl's size and the color of clothes she wears. Like those are the two most important things to base a marriage on. So you get a girl who is a size 4 and she wears black--are you going to be a happy husband based on these things? If you are, I really wonder who needs you.

Anonymous said...

I think you mentioned this once ProfK but if red were an untsnius color would God have given frum people people red hair? By the logic that seems to go with the wear black only movement, no one is frum enough unless their hair is black and their eyes are black. Blue eyed blondes and green eyed redheads clearly need to get plastic surgery or cosmetic help because they are going to get thrown out of Klal. I'm packing a suitcase in case I have to escape suddenly.

G said...

Our world is filled with a multitude of colors in every shade and tint imaginable. We don't live in a black and white world with only a few shades of grey for contrast.

This "color" business you speak of is only a creation of the lowly, modern times we live in, rachmana litzlan.
I ask you, did they have such "colors" in Europe? NO, they did not!
Just look at any pictures from that most holy time in our history, you will not find color anywhwhere! Everyone is in strictly black or white as well as that gray you seem to abhore so much.

So there.

A Living Nadneyda said...

At last count I have nine red or reddish hued shirts and about the same number of red scarves. LOVE 'em. (Not to mention the aqua, lime green, brown, orange, purple, blue, white, off-white, and yes, black ones). For many people, the right shade of red is extremely flattering. No way would I give that up. Even severely color blind people don't limit their wardrobes to shades of black and white, despite the mix-and-match difficulties they must encounter getting dressed in the morning.

(And I loved you & your husband's approach, Leahle!)

Knitter of shiny things said...

When I was living in Washington Heights for a summer, I would often feel very conspicuous at shul, since I wore colors. Not everyone was in black and white (there were a few women who wore pink) but I would be the only person in a green shirt and a shiny purple skirt. Even when I was at my frummest, I never would have abandoned wearing colors. Though I never was chareidi, only Modern Orthodox, so that's probably why I could get away with wearing colors, even in places where it was uncommon for others to do so.

Anonymous said...

Prof. K. hits another one out of the park.

The lights have gone out in a lot of the frum world, unfortunately. A generation of robots, in penguin colors. And people wonder why there are kids at risk.

The people may mean well, wanting to distance themselves from the degeneracy of the surrounding world. There is also an element of imitating the Hassidim, who some admire and romanticize from afar, without knowing much about them (see "Grass greener in Kiryas Joel and New Square ?" ;-).

But hey, does that mean we have to dress like priests and nuns ? Hey, even they have more options nowadays.

There is also a middle ground here. There happen to be many colors between red and black and white.

Did prominent Rebbetzins and mechanchos in the past dress in all black ??

P.S. The recent popularity of black in the outside world must be considered when discussing this topic as well. I think that it is a factor too, as it enables people to dress in black and people can think they are doing it to be stylish, not just 'frum'.

Anonymous said...

I confess, I am curious.
What color red are we referring to?
Scarlet? Raspberry, strawberry, magenta, coral, peach, vermillion, maroon, wine, auburn, copper, pink, fire-engine red, blush, rose....
Personally, the only thing I thought was preferable not to wear was eye-catching scarlet or fire engine red. All the rest- enjoy Hashem's hues.

ProfK said...

Thought I'd throw this into the discussion. About 1 in every ten men is color blind. This is with the most common type of color blindness--the red-green one. Those who also have yellow-blue color blindness will also have the red-green type. But here is the kicker. The rate of color blindness in the ashkenazic Jewish male population is more than double that of the general population, or about 1.3 out of every 5 Jewish males is color blind.

And these Jewish males are issuing commands about color? It might explain the strange color combinations sometimes seen on males arriving at your door for a date, but just what is it that these males are seeing when they see the color red? Or any color? In a very real sense we are letting "blind men" make decisions based on what they see, and they may not be seeing what is really there.

Anonymous said...

First time I had read about the color blindness in men. I called my cousin who is an opthalmologist and she said that your figures might even be too low because of new studies that came out recently. So I think you are right. How do we even know what color a rabbi is talking about when he bans a color if it could be that he doesn't see that color the way at least 50 percent of the population--women--does?

Ahuva said...

Great post! I was out window shopping with a friend the other day, who picked up a bright red and purple skirt (my two favorite colors) and talked about how perfect the colors were. Then she picked up a white-and-gray one and commented on how that was "more Ahuva's style." My heart sank. I love bright colors and it's pure silliness not to wear them!