The Sexy and Twisted Story of the Color Puce
Purplish-brown and weird all around, this is the history of a color named for fleas!
This is the story of a color named for fleas. That’s right, parasitic, blood-sucking fleas. See, puce is the French word for flea. Literally. In English, however, the color puce is as difficult to describe as it is to understand its origin. We’ll cover both before we’re done.
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Puce, which rhymes with “goose,” is essentially a shade of purple, or dark red, tinted with brown. (If you want to be technical, its hex code is #CC8899; its HTML color code is #7F5A58.) Yes, it’s a lovely… purplish-brown. At least most of the time. Depending upon where you’re from, you may use “puce” to describe a color akin to pea soup. We’re not talking about that color, though. We definitely mean the purple-brown one.
OK, so maybe puce isn’t one of the aura colors. Maybe it’s not a great choice for entryway wallpaper, nor is it a favorite crayon shade. But briefly, about 250 years ago, it was wildly popular.
Let’s talk about the history of the color first, before discussing its actual, well, color, as it’s a fascinating (and slightly disconcerting) history indeed.
How Puce Became the High-Society ‘It’ Color of 1775
Today, when a celebrity pops up wearing this or that pair of jeans, a specific brand of sunglasses, or a chic dress, it’s a sure bet that sales will get a bump. Two and a half centuries ago, in French high society, the leading “celebrities” of the day were royalty. And no one was a bigger influencer, so to speak, than the young queen, the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.
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Known for her outlandish hairstyles, huge, multi-layered dresses, lavish jewelry, and her grandiose sense of self, Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI, could and did set the fashion world of her day into a frenzy. Such it was with the color puce.
Blame Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI for the Puce Color and Name
According to The Awl, one day in early-summer 1775, the young queen donned a new dress made for her in a decidedly unusual color; indeed it was a color so new it didn’t even have a name. The name would come care of King Louis himself, who, upon seeing his fashion-forward wife in her new gown, exclaimed: “C’est puce!” So, Louis effectively said … “Looks like a flea!”
Now, if you have the stomach for it, go ahead and do an image search of a flea. Look specifically at the belly of one of the little parasites engorged from a meal. That meal, of course, will have been a mammal’s blood, and thus the belly will be a purplish-brown hue owing to the blood showing through the small flightless insect’s body. That unique hue is what Louis XVI referenced. (Flea-human interactions were much more common in the 18th century, even for royalty.)
For the record, the king wasn’t trying to insult his wife. In fact, calling someone “ma
puce,” or “my flea” is a term of endearment in French. It’s rather like calling someone a “honey bee” or “love bug” in English. And far from denigrating her new dress, the king praised it. Soon, court nobles had caught sight of the new shade, and within a matter of weeks the color puce had become one of the most popular shades in France. (Well, anywhere people had money to buy brand-new dyed clothing, at least.)
Why Puce Was So Popular in the Summer of 1775
Puce may have gotten its start because of Marie Antoinette (and her husband), but its popularity
among ladies in French society goes beyond that. It’s also explained by the fact that, in its “purest” form, puce is a dark, rich color. That meant it hid stains well. Thus, puce clothing required less-frequent laundering, looked newer and fresher longer, and would need replacing less often than
garments in other colors.
Puce Fell Out of Fashion, But Not Out of Culture
And while puce was initially associated with the highest order of royalty, it was, in fact, a less-expensive color to produce than many other shades, which was also welcome news to women of
Despite how popular puce became that summer of 1775, it also lost popularity as fast as
parachute pants in the 1990s. By the autumn of 1775, it was out of style. But, as it happened, puce would never be gone from the collective vocabulary, the color now having been born.
So, What Color Is Puce, Anyway?
If you’re willing, go ahead and find an image of an engorged flea, because that brownish-
purple color you’ll see in its belly really is a perfect shade of puce. Overall, it’s difficult to nail down this color, because people tend to play pretty loose with it.
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One brand may display a color much closer to pink and call it puce. Another will lean decidedly more purple. Some will have a more grayish undertone, be it pinkish or purplish, while others will have a browner coloration along with the purple. Or pink.
We can never know for certain what Marie Antoinette’s dress looked like that summer of 1775
given that color photography was still about 90 years away. But it’s safe to assume it was indeed a mix of purple and brown.
What we do know is that, even in 1775, there was more than one shade going around
called puce,. There was a deep, rich “ventre de puce” named
for a flea’s sanguine belly. There was “cuisse de puce,” or flea thigh, which was more toward
brown. And there was “vielle puce,” or old flea, which referred to a slightly more faded puce.
Now, flea belly, flea thigh and old flea may hardly seem strong selling points today, but they
worked 250 years ago, if only for a few months.