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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

Parisian with hat, by Barbara Redmond

Parisian with hat, by Barbara Redmond

There are colours you see in Paris that don’t seem to appear anywhere else. A whole range of greens, for example. The deep green of the Wallace fountains, the coppery green of the Metro entrances, or the light sage of the window frames on the newly restored Hotel de Sully on the rue St-Antoine. Not to mention the pale almond green of the bags from Ladurée, containing pistachio green macaroons.

And we are still trying to find words for the range of colours of Paris housefronts, from cream through to a golden grey, with stops along the way at ecru and pale toast. (In her watercolour, Barbara has simply left them as grey.)

The colours of Paris in the springtime

Many of the spring fashions in the shop windows are delicate colours straight out of an 18th-century painting: faint lavenders, distant blues, palest yellows. We even went into a boutique to ask the saleswoman how she would describe the colour of a certain pinkish parasol. She thought for a moment and suggested “rose poudrée” (powdered rose). That sounds about right.

Spring seems to call forth these fragile shades that evoke dawn and dusk. Yet here and there we have seen some intense shades, such as chartreuse (a somewhat acidic yellow-green), intense blue, and violet. These we see as 19th century colours − the strong colours that were used when chemical dyes replaced dyes made from plants and other natural sources.

The two ranges of colour − the 18th-century pastels and the saturated colours of the 19th century − seem drawn from this year’s gardens and art exhibits in Paris, and the pale blue of a sky that for a few days was free of everything except clouds, but in fact, they were probably forecast for the fashion industry a year or so ago, and not necessarily in Paris. It takes coordination and months of preparation to ensure that the same colours in a particular range are available in clothes, accessories, and home furnishings in a specific season.

The colours of Yves Saint Laurent

Colour forecasting happens in dull offices far away from the glittering showrooms and boutiques, and the people who do it have names none of us would recognize. Yet from time to time, an individual does manage to impose his or her ideas about colour, as we saw at the huge retrospective exhibit of Yves St-Laurent fashions at the Petit Palais.

YSL started at the House of Dior in 1957, when he was 21 years old. The clothes on display from that era were mostly navy, grey, and brown for day, and white, black or pink for evening. Elegant, but oh so quiet.

Over the next couple of decades, YSL focused on translating menswear into women’s clothing: navy pea coats (from seamen), taupe jumpsuits (from parachutists), black smoking jackets (from aristocrats), khaki safari jackets (from big game hunters), pin-striped pantsuits (from businessmen), and gray smock-like blouses (from artists and manual workers). The famous Mondrian dress of 1965 borrowed the artist’s primary colours, and there is an occasional burst of red or green, but for the most part, workaday colours reigned.

Yves Saint Laurnet and the colours of Morocco

It was only after he began to travel regularly to Morocco that YSL claimed to have “discovered colour.” The later exhibits from the 1970s and 1980s are a riot of jewel-like colours. Beading and embroidery embellish the gowns and jackets, and the accessories are pure fantasy. He drew inspiration from Spain, Russia, and China without ever having visited these countries, except in his imagination. He took the yellow from Van Gogh’s sunflowers and the blue of his irises. He insisted that the embroiderer Lesage recreate the look of sunlight falling on crystals for a beaded jacket.

The last room in the exhibit was lined with YSL’s colour swatches. Scraps of fabric the size of credit cards, pinned to loose-leaf paper, organized by tint and shade, fill the room from floor to ceiling, punctuated with a few of the fashions from his farewell 2002 show. The gowns are simple classic draperies in solid colours, without pattern or contrast: yellow, pink, dark red, and blue. Pure colour. Pure inspiration. We wandered out into the Paris spring, entranced. No wonder the city is full of artists. In a city of colour and light, it seems merely a mark of respect to try to capture the elusive shades and tints that surround us.

YSL is best known for “le smoking,” the black evening jackets he created in a variety of shapes, often in a fabric called “grain de poudre” (a finely woven wool often used for men’s evening wear). The navy pea coat is described as “un caban de lainage marine” and the pantsuit is “un tailleur pantalon.”

Book recommended by A Woman’s Paris Yves Saint Laurent

By Farid Chenoune and Florence Muller. Abrams publishers (2010).

YSL Exhibit online:

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Anthracite: Colour of dark grey, almost black.
Ardoise: Colour of slate grey.
Étain: Colour of pewter grey.
Grain de poudre: Finely woven wool often used for men’s evening wear.
Greige: Colour mix of grey and beige.
Grisaille: Term applied to another colour term to indicate a greyed-down version of the colour.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.