‘And What’s Wrong with Muriel Puce?’

(Originally blogged November 12, 2009)

…asks Gloria Upson of her fiance Patrick Dennis in Auntie Mame.

To me, puce has always been an onomatopoeiac word – it looks like it sounds (dull and murky) and yet few people know what the real colour of puce looks like. When asked, many think it’s a shade of green, probably confusing chartreuse with puce, while others think it’s a shade of blue or mauve. Even in its day, the exact colour probably wavered between each batch of dye.

I wanted to set the record straight on puce but while searching for information I ran into other people who also decided to set the record straight; Glass of Fashion beat me to it by a few months with her great post on the origins of puce, and several Q&A sites have lively discussions on the perceptions and origins of the colour.

This is an actual close-up photograph of a blood engorged flea

Puce is French for flea (which is why Flea markets in Paris are called Les Puces), and the colour is supposed to emulate the colour of a flea after it has fed and is engorged with blood. The colour of the blood through the translucent tan colour of the flea’s body is a reddish/purplish brown but I have to admit that the photograph to the left of a close-up of a blood-engorged flea was not as brown as I would have defined puce.

The French loved giving specific names to shades of colours in the late 18th century; green water (l’eau verte) and flea (puce) were particular favourites in the 1770s and 1780s. Puce officially entered the English vocabulary when the Oxford English Dictionary defined the word in 1787.

The colour has since come in and out of fashion. A darker hue became popular in the mid 19th century. By dyeing brown kid leather with red cochineal dye, a dark purplish colour was created that became known as bronzed kid – a particular favourite for dressy shoes and boots.

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