The dark truth behind white

Updated 21st April 2017
The dark truth behind white
Kassia St Clair is a design journalist and author. This is an edited excerpt from her new book, "The Secret Lives of Colour," published by John Murray.
Like the eponymous albino leviathan of Melville's novel, white has an otherness to it. If colours were people, it would be admired, but it probably wouldn't be popular: it is just a little too exclusive, autocratic and neurotic.
Someone wearing a snow-pale winter coat telegraphs a subtle visual message: 'I do not need to take public transport.'
Kassia St Clair
White has long been intricately connected with money and power. Fabrics, including wool and cotton, had to be heavily processed in order to appear white. Only the very wealthy, supported by battalions of staff, could afford to keep the fresh lace and linen cuffs, ruffs and cravats worn in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries pristine. This connection still holds true. Someone wearing a snow-pale winter coat telegraphs a subtle visual message: 'I do not need to take public transport.'
For many, however, white is seen as positive, or as having a transcendent, religious quality. It is the Chinese colour of death and mourning. In the West and Japan, brides wear it because it is a colour symbolic of sexual purity. The Holy Spirit has often been depicted descending onto benighted humanity as a white dove appearing in a rush of pallid golden light.
High-end modernists and minimalists, from Tadao Ando, the famous Japanese architect, to Calvin Klein and Jonathan Ive at Apple, have drawn on white's power and hauteur. (Steve Jobs was initially against the tide of white products that Ive began producing around the turn of the millennium. He eventually agreed to the signature headphones and keyboard in 'Moon Gray' plastic.
We think of them as white; technically, however, they are very pale grey. And despite, or perhaps because, white so readily shows the dirt, it has also become associated with cleanliness. 'White goods', tablecloths and lab coats are all defiant in their spotless impracticality, daring users to even think about spilling anything. American dentists complain that in a quest for teeth that appear sparkling clean, customers are now asking for teeth to be bleached so unrealistically white that whole new teeth-whitening palettes have had to be produced.
The foundations of the architectural idolisation of white are built on a mistake. For centuries the bleached bone colour of classical Greek and Roman ruins provided the keystone for Western aesthetics. The inheritance of Andrea Palladio -- the sixteenth-century Venetian architect who repopularised supposedly classical concepts -- and his Palladian successors can be seen in every grand building in every major city in the West.
It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that researchers discovered that classical statuary and buildings were usually brightly painted. Many Western aesthetes refused to believe it. The sculptor Auguste Rodin is said to have beat his chest in sorrow and said: 'I feel it here that they were never coloured.'
"The Secret Lives of Colour" by Kassia St Clair, published by John Murray is out now.
Illustrations by Jocie Juritz, the animator and director of this episode of Colorscope.
This feature is part of Colorscope, a new series that explores our perception of color and its use across cultures through fanciful films. See more here.