Fashion, Violence, and Colour: Interwar Modernity as an Assault to the Eyes

Maddening Hues


In 1923, the Gazette du Bon Ton employed what they termed a ‘Professor of
Colourism’ to provide advice for an article entitled ‘Dangerous and Virtuous Colours’.
Set upon a solid background of vivid, mustard yellow, the text and accompanying line
drawing, both printed in strong black, create a stark contrast, and subsequently
jarring visual sensation for the reader. Could this uncomfortable viewing be an
example of the danger of colour referred to by the article? Can colour perform an
assault on the senses in this way? If this explains the Gazette du Bon Ton’s
reference to danger, what, then, associates colour with the journal’s second
description, of ‘virtuous’? Such ideas on colour were not obscure, and in fact
appeared over a range of contemporary media, particularly the fashion press. Two
years later, in 1925, for example, Vogue mused that ‘there is… a touch of the
soldier’s swagger… of flaunting danger… in red hats.’ It proposed, then, that colours
have an ability to project characteristics. In this case, the characteristics were
associated with military violence, closely connected to the recent experience of the
First World War.

The aftermath of the war had a huge impact on the advertising of skincare products.
In the immediate post-war years, beauty advertisements engaged with women’s
wartime experiences, appealing to notions of wounds and trauma on a psychological
level. They presented the enticing image of peaceful care, healing and wholeness,
taking direct visual inspiration from new developments in medicine. However, this
caring image of comfort soon placed women in potentially threatening situations, and
a new, medicalised and violent aesthetic, which I term ‘beauty doctoring’, both
appealed to, and exploited, women’s war-invoked vulnerabilities.

In the years following, the impact of violence upon beauty advertising did not
diminish. References to colour and its potential dissonant danger appeared
frequently, particularly from the mid-1920s onwards, which coincided with
developments, and the increasing presence of colour, in beauty, fashion, and culture
– including publishing, photography, and film – alike. Women’s changing role amongst
this led to new methods of both their perception and self-agency, and within this,
colour played a crucial role.

Gazette du Bon Ton, No. 5, 1923.
US Vogue (1st March, 1925).