In Praise of the Thirties’ Palette

Published on: 7th October 2019

With the launch of our new look website came a renewed interest in the history of colour. Of course, we wanted the look of the site to be 'web contemporary', but we also wanted to evoke the palette of the past and to speak to our book jackets. Designed in-house, one of the aspects of our cover art that I personally enjoy the most is the authentic palette. Whether a book was originally published in the the Twenties or the the Forties, the palette corresponds perfectly to each decade. Palette is of particular interest to me; as a professor of fashion and design history, colour theory is an enormous component of any course I teach, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve marked a student down for ‘getting colour wrong’ in an historically-inspired visual project.

One of the eras that seems to confound most of my students is the 1930s. As so much of what we see on film from ’30s is in black and white (with so many interiors still cemented in the bold, Art Deco style of the 1920s), it’s easy to understand why the palette of the ’30s is so often misread – and then misinterpreted –  with even big budget movies set in the decade opting (erroneously) for the black, silver, red, indigo, and emerald favoured by The Jazz Age.

Blog 2 pic 3The palette of the ’30s was not within the strong, Deco ambit; it was soft and muted, with gentle hues of mauve, lavender, sage, blue-grey, teal, and cornflower. Although the graphics of WPA art, for example, were strident and bold, the Works Progress Administration artists adhered to the palette of their time, with renderings of even The Badlands and Yosemite worked in subtle seafoam, barely-there beige, and pretty periwinkle blue.

Commercial art of the era followed suit, this same, placid palette ubiquitous in advertising, with everything from cars to cosmetics, and from Hollywood movies to fruit juice, sold to a Depression Era public in these gentle, offbeat colours.

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30s fashion paletteThe flirty, feminine feel of 1930s’ fashion lent itself perfectly to this gentlest of palettes; certainly, designers such as Schiaparelli and Adrian played boldly with brights, yet the majority of womenswear – be it high fashion or high street – was worked in the hushed hues that I personally adore, and wish were remembered more widely.

25989708The purple range was particularly popular in the 1930s; from amethyst to orchid, and from the lightest lilac to the deepest eggplant, I would argue (and once did!) that the popularity of purple in the ’30s was directly due to The Great Depression.  Just a glance at a selection of movie titles of the era indicates the obsession with wealth that followed The Crash of ’29; Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, The Gay Divorcee, these movies centered on wealthy people living glamorous lives in luxurious settings, and as purple is traditionally the colour of royalty, it is not surprising to see it so favoured in a decade of want and dis-empowerment.

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it might lead anywhere

Another colour that dominated the ’30s was undoubtedly seafoam, and yet I am still trying figure out why those who struggled through The Great Depression favored a colour that (while beautiful) is hardly ‘upbeat’. Packaging in particular flew the seafoam flag, and while image-searching for this post, I found it difficult to find 1930s’ packaging that didn’t include at least an element of seafoam.

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With such a predilection for both seafoam and purple tones, it’s no wonder we see this odd (yet strangely harmonious) marriage of the two in 1930s’ homes.

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Yet the question remains as to why? Why was the palette of The Thirties so soft, so muted, so understated? As everything in culture is a response to whatever is happening on the greater socio-political landscape, I believe there is an argument that after the wild spending (and wild living) of the prosperous 1920s, there was a general sense of contriteness that marked The Thirties. Hemlines fell, church-going boomed, “Go big or go home” was notthe ethos of The Great Depression; it was more like; “go quietly, keep your nose clean, your head down, and maybe this hell will all go away”, and of course, this ‘hell’ included the rise of fascism in Europe, the Dustbowl of the American prairie states, and – by 1939 – the start of World War II. It is no wonder, then, that softness and sweetness were much in need, and the soothing Thirties’ palette married itself perfectly to that understated, somewhat apologetic psychology of the era.

To me, nothing is more evocative of past times than colour. Be it the patriotic reds, whites and blues of The Forties, the coral, mint, and turquoise of the Mid-Century, or even the clash of neon and pastels in the 1980s, every decade is recalled to me as soon as I see a particular hue. Yet my personal favorite palette has got to be that of the 1930s, which is why I was so enchanted by the wonderfully authentic palette of Dean Street Press book jackets; not only my favorite era in Crime Fiction and Literary Fiction, but my favourite colours, too.

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Amanda Hallay 

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