Businesses can rise and fall on their color choices. Imagine Gap betting its fall line on bistre brown when the world was really waiting for amaranth purple. Design critic Jude Stewart knows the importance of hue well. Her new book, Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (Bloomsbury), takes a deep, sometimes feisty look at all the things that color can do and mean.
“I’ve always been strongly swayed by color,” she tells me. “I can recall as a kid poring over a 1980s self-help book, Color Me Beautiful, which shows you how to wear the ‘right’ colors for your skin tone. The before and after shots were incredible: drape her in the right shade of pink, and suddenly she’s dewy and glowing. Drape her in the wrong shade, though, and she turns sallow and shrunken, as if her soul had been sucked out.” Her book’s chapters loosely follow the order of the rainbow-referencing mnemonic in its title—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. She also added in white, pink, and brown, colors “that don’t appear in the rainbow but allowed me to tell some great stories,” she says.
That mnemonic, it turns out, isn’t strictly accurate: “Technically speaking, there aren’t seven distinct colors in the rainbow. But Isaac Newton felt pressured to name seven colors to match the seven tones in Descartes’s musical scale–so he shoe-horned indigo in.” In fact, different languages splinter the rainbow into different color terms; “not everyone sees and names the colors as we English-speakers do,” Stewart points out. For instance, in England people don’t use “Roy G. Biv” but instead say, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain.” “Unless,” she says, “you’re a Yorkie and still touchy about Richard losing the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. A popular variant for those folks praises a local sweet, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums and Pastilles: ‘Rowntree’s of York Gave Best In Value.’”