July 20, 2018

Recently, my friend sent me a fascinating piece of news. Scientists have accidentally discovered the first new blue pigment in 200 years!

(YInMn blue, discovered by Mas Subramanian)

Of course, working in bridal fashion, this got me thinking about “something blue.”
The tradition of wearing something blue on your wedding day stems from a famous English rhyme:

“Something old, something new,
something borrowed, something blue,
and a sixpence in your shoe.”

It’s a cute little rhyme that originated in Victorian England, and it’s a lot of fun to figure out how to incorporate all of the traditions into your outfit. But it turns out that the traditions are quite ancient.

Most are pretty straightforward. The “something old” symbolizes the continuation of the bride’s past relationships with family and friends; the “something new” signifies the beginning of her new life as a married woman. The “sixpence in the shoe” is supposed to bring wealth, fortune, and prosperity. “Something borrowed” is complicated enough for its own blog post, but basically it was supposed to help the bride have children, if she was hoping to do so.

And finally, there’s “something blue.” Some, like wedding megasite The Knot, claim that blue is supposed to symbolize “purity, love, and fidelity,” but other sources state that it is a lucky color that protects against the Evil Eye. So which of the two schools of thought are correct?

To explain, we have to go back to high school science class, Ancient Egypt, and Renaissance Europe.

Blue is a pretty amazing color. It’s the number one favorite color worldwide, but scientifically speaking, it happens to be a very unusual color. Blue pigment is extremely rare, and almost every single blue that appears in nature – blue eyes, blue sea, blue sky, blue butterflies – is caused by some kind of light scattering.

(Blue Morpho  Butterfly)

To quickly recap your high school science unit on light waves, there are seven spectral colors of light that we can see, each with its own wavelength. We often see color when chemicals called pigments absorb specific wavelengths of light and leave the leftover wavelengths to bounce back into our eyes. But colors caused by light scattering are more the result of a substance’s structural properties than its chemical properties. If the relationship between the structure and the lighting changes, we perceive different colors. This is why blue eyes sometimes appear green or grey, and why the sky changes color at sunset.

While this is a fascinating property of blue, it posed a unique problem for early artists. Making paint required grinding up pigments and mixing them into carriers such as linseed oil or egg whites. Unfortunately, most objects that looked blue would lose their blue appearance when they were ground up.

6,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, artists were scratching their heads over this very problem. Ancient Egyptians loved blue – it was the color of the sky and the Nile, which were extremely important to their mythology and day-to-day life. They just couldn’t find a way to replicate it in their artwork. The three naturally occurring blue pigments – lapis lazuli, azurite, and cobalt – were too rare and costly to grind into powder, unstable in air, or deadly to mine. And obviously, they couldn’t grind up the sky and make it into paint.

Not to worry. Around 3250 B.C., they developed calcium copper silicate, the first synthetic blue pigment, and also the very first synthetic pigment ever invented. Suddenly, Egyptian Blue was everywhere – on statues, on urns, on vases, and most importantly on Evil Eye talismans.

(Eye of Horus Evil Eye talisman, Dynasty 21-24, 1069-715 BCE)

The destructive power of a jealous look – or Evil Eye – is so feared throughout the world that it has inspired a rich set of mythologies and superstitions everywhere from England to Iran. The details vary, but typically people are considered most vulnerable to a jealous onlooker’s Evil Eye when they are experiencing major life transitions such as childbirth, entry to the afterlife, or… marriage.

Fortunately, pretty much every society has its own version of a charm or talisman that will baffle the Evil Eye. Since the Egyptians revered a god named Horus, whose eye was central to one of the most epic tales of sibling rivalry ever told, their protective talismans took the form of the Eye of Horus. And while it may be that they just thought the talismans would look nice in blue, the color choice probably had something to do with the fact that Horus happened to be the god of the sky. Blue Evil Eye talismans – which are still extremely popular – spread throughout the Middle East and established blue as a color of divine protection.

(Modern-day Evil Eye amulets for sale in Turkey)

Now, fast forward a few thousand years to circa 1300 AD. The Renaissance is just beginning. Egyptian Blue has been lost in the sands of time, since nobody bothered to write down the exact recipe. The world’s blue pigment of choice is now cobalt, literally named “goblin ore” because of its nasty tendency to emit arsenic oxide. But then, someone imports a striking bright blue powder into Italy. It is made of the semi-precious gemstone lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan and purified into the beautiful blue pigment. The Europeans fall head over heels in love with it and name it “ultramarine.”

The only issue is that ultramarine is staggeringly expensive. As in, more expensive than gold.

By this time, Christianity had spread from the Middle East and become a dominant force in Europe. Wealthy elites showed off both their wealth and their piety by commissioning exquisite religious paintings from great artists. Obviously, paintings with ultramarine were go-to status symbols. But ultramarine was so very expensive that even the great Michelangelo couldn’t always get his hands on it. So for the purposes of both piety and practicality, use of ultramarine was limited to the wardrobes of those who were considered most worthy: Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Eventually, blue came to be associated mostly with Mary. Jesus’ most commonly painted seminal moments – birth and crucifixion – didn’t involve a whole lot of clothing. So blue became the color of Mary and the traits she embodied; namely, purity, love, and fidelity.

(The Virgin in Prayer, Sassoferrato, c. 1640)

By the time the “something blue” rhyme was written in Victorian England, blue was considered the most feminine color, at least in part because of its associations with Mary. But England was a hodgepodge of cultures and traditions, and old folk superstitions thrived alongside devout Christian communities in an odd, symbiotic relationship. English folklore at the time held that blue would baffle the Evil Eye, and it is possible that the belief had been absorbed into Christian communities and had spread from the Middle East alongside the religion. Either way, purity, compassion, and loyalty go a long way against the destructive forces of greed and jealousy, so regardless of its origins, it seems that “something blue” is ultimately a symbol of love and harmony.

I haven’t even gotten into all the other wonderful meanings of blue throughout the world. It is the color of Krishna, the Hindu god of compassion, tenderness, and love; it is the color of the Medicine Buddha; it was the color of the warpaint the courageous Queen Boudica wore to defend the Celts in battle. So whatever your cultural or religious background, if you should choose to wear something blue on your wedding day, know that you will be wearing a color that is incredibly special and powerful all over the world.

(Krishna, Hindu god of love, with consort Radha)

Until next time,