Blue is one of the three primary colours of pigments in painting and traditional colour theory, as well as in the RGB colour model. It lies between violet and green on the spectrum of visible light. The eye perceives blue when observing light with a dominant wavelength between approximately 450 and 495 nanometres. Most blues contain a slight mixture of other colors; azure contains some green, while ultramarine contains some violet. The clear daytime sky and the deep sea appear blue because of an optical effect known as Rayleigh scattering. An optical effect called Tyndall scattering explains blue eyes. Distant objects appear more blue because of another optical effect called atmospheric perspective.
Blue has been an important colour in art and decoration since ancient times. The semi-precious stone lapis lazuli was used in ancient Egypt for jewellery and ornament and later, in the Renaissance, to make the pigment ultramarine, the most expensive of all pigments. In the eighth century Chinese artists used cobalt blue to colour fine blue and white porcelain. In the Middle Ages, European artists used it in the windows of Cathedrals. Europeans wore clothing coloured with the vegetable dye woad until it was replaced by the finer indigo from America. In the 19th century, synthetic blue dyes and pigments gradually replaced mineral pigments and synthetic dyes. Dark blue became a common colour for military uniforms and later, in the late 20th century, for business suits. Because blue has commonly been associated with harmony, it was chosen as the colour of the flags of the United Nations and the European Union.
Surveys in the US and Europe show that blue is the colour most commonly associated with harmony, faithfulness, confidence, distance, infinity, the imagination, cold, and sometimes with sadness. In US and European public opinion polls it is the most popular colour, chosen by almost half of both men and women as their favourite colour. The same surveys also showed that blue was the colour most associated with the masculine, just ahead of black, and was also the colour most associated with intelligence, knowledge, calm and concentration.
In the 17th century, Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, was one of the first rulers to give his army blue uniforms. The reasons were economic; the German states were trying to protect their pastel dye industry against competition from imported indigo dye. When Brandenburg became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701, the uniform colour was adopted by the Prussian army. Most German soldiers wore dark blue uniforms until the First World War, with the exception of the Bavarians, who wore light blue.
Thanks in part to the availability of indigo dye, the 18th century saw the widespread use of blue military uniforms. Prior to 1748, British naval officers simply wore upper-class civilian clothing and wigs. In 1748, the British uniform for naval officers was officially established as an embroidered coat of the colour then called marine blue, now known as navy blue. When the Continental Navy of the United States was created in 1775, it largely copied the British uniform and colour.
In the late 18th century, the blue uniform became a symbol of liberty and revolution. In October 1774, even before the United States declared its independence, George Mason and one hundred Virginia neighbours of George Washington organised a voluntary militia unit (the Fairfax County Independent Company of Volunteers) and elected Washington the honorary commander. For their uniforms they chose blue and buff, the colours of the Whig Party, the opposition party in England, whose policies were supported by George Washington and many other patriots in the American colonies.
When the Continental Army was established in 1775 at the outbreak of the American Revolution, the first Continental Congress declared that the official uniform colour would be brown, but this was not popular with many militias, whose officers were already wearing blue. In 1778 the Congress asked George Washington to design a new uniform, and in 1779 Washington made the official colour of all uniforms blue and buff. Blue continued to be the colour of the field uniform of the US Army until 1902, and is still the colour of the dress uniform.
In France the Gardes Françaises, the elite regiment which protected Louis XVI, wore dark blue uniforms with red trim. In 1789, the soldiers gradually changed their allegiance from the king to the people, and they played a leading role in the storming of the Bastille. After the fall of Bastille, a new armed force, the Garde Nationale, was formed under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had served with George Washington in America. Lafayette gave the Garde Nationale dark blue uniforms similar to those of the Continental Army. Blue became the colour of the revolutionary armies, opposed to the white uniforms of the Royalists and the Austrians.
Napoleon Bonaparte abandoned many of the doctrines of the French Revolution but he kept blue as the uniform colour for his army, although he had great difficulty obtaining the blue dye, since the British controlled the seas and blocked the importation of indigo to France. Napoleon was forced to dye uniforms with woad, which had an inferior blue colour. The French army wore a dark blue uniform coat with red trousers until 1915, when it was found to be a too visible target on the battlefields of World War I. It was replaced with uniforms of a light blue-grey colour called horizon blue.
Blue was the colour of liberty and revolution in the 18th century, but in the 19th it increasingly became the colour of government authority, the uniform colour of policemen and other public servants. It was considered serious and authoritative, without being menacing. In 1829, when Robert Peel created the first London Metropolitan Police, he made the colour of the uniform jacket a dark, almost black blue, to make the policemen look different from soldiers, who until then had patrolled the streets. The traditional blue jacket with silver buttons of the London “bobbie” was not abandoned until the mid-1990s, when it was replaced by a light blue shirt and a jumper or sweater of the colour officially known as NATO blue.
The New York City Police Department, modelled after the London Metropolitan Police, was created in 1844, and in 1853, they were officially given a navy blue uniform, the colour they wear today.
Navy blue is one of the most popular school uniform colors, with the Toronto Catholic District School Board adopting a dress code policy which requires students system-wide to wear white tops and navy blue bottoms.
Search for the perfect blue
During the 17th and 18th centuries, chemists in Europe tried to discover a way to create synthetic blue pigments, avoiding the expense of importing and grinding lapis lazuli, azurite and other minerals. The Egyptians had created a synthetic colour, Egyptian blue, three thousand years BC, but the formula had been lost. The Chinese had also created synthetic pigments, but the formula was not known in the west.
In 1709 a German druggist and pigment maker named Johann Jacob Diesbach accidentally discovered a new blue while experimenting with potassium and iron sulphides. The new colour was first called Berlin blue, but later became known as Prussian blue. By 1710 it was being used by the French painter Antoine Watteau, and later his successor Nicolas Lancret. It became immensely popular for the manufacture of wallpaper, and in the 19th century was widely used by French impressionist painters.
Beginning in the 1820s, Prussian blue was imported into Japan through the port of Nagasaki. It was called bero-ai, or Berlin blue, and it became popular because it did not fade like traditional Japanese blue pigment, ai-gami, made from the dayflower. Prussian blue was used by both Hokusai, in his famous wave paintings, and Hiroshige.
In 1824 the Societé pour l’Encouragement d’Industrie in France offered a prize for the invention of an artificial ultramarine which could rival the natural colour made from lapis lazuli. The prize was won in 1826 by a chemist named Jean Baptiste Guimet, but he refused to reveal the formula of his colour. In 1828, another scientist, Christian Gmelin then a professor of chemistry in Tübingen, found the process and published his formula. This was the beginning of new industry to manufacture artificial ultramarine, which eventually almost completely replaced the natural product.
In 1878 a German chemist named a. Von Baeyer discovered a synthetic substitute for indigotine, the active ingredient of indigo. This product gradually replaced natural indigo, and after the end of the First World War, it brought an end to the trade of indigo from the East and West Indies.
In 1901 a new synthetic blue dye, called Indanthrone blue, was invented, which had even greater resistance to fading during washing or in the sun. This dye gradually replaced artificial indigo, whose production ceased in about 1970. Today almost all blue clothing is dyed with an indanthrone blue.
Blue had first become the high fashion colour of the wealthy and powerful in Europe in the 13th century, when it was worn by Louis IX of France, better known as Saint Louis (1214-1270). Wearing blue implied dignity and wealth, and blue clothing was restricted to the nobility. However, blue was replaced by black as the power colour in the 14th century, when European princes, and then merchants and bankers, wanted to show their seriousness, dignity and devoutness (see Black).
Blue gradually returned to court fashion in the 17th century, as part of a palette of peacock-bright colours shown off in extremely elaborate costumes. The modern blue business suit has its roots in England in the middle of the 17th century. Following the London plague of 1665 and the London fire of 1666, King Charles II of England ordered that his courtiers wear simple coats, waistcoats and breeches, and the palette of colours became blue, grey, white and buff. Widely imitated, this style of men’s fashion became almost a uniform of the London merchant class and the English country gentleman.
During the American Revolution, the leader of the Whig Party in England, Charles James Fox, wore a blue coat and buff waistcoat and breeches, the colours of the Whig Party and of the uniform of George Washington, whose principles he supported. The men’s suit followed the basic form of the military uniforms of the time, particularly the uniforms of the cavalry.
In the early 19th century, during the Regency of the future King George IV, the blue suit was revolutionised by a courtier named George Beau Brummel. Brummel created a suit that closely fitted the human form. The new style had a long tail coat cut to fit the body and long tight trousers to replace the knee-length breeches and stockings of the previous century. He used plain colours, such as blue and grey, to concentrate attention on the form of the body, not the clothes. Brummel observed, “If people turn to look at you in the street, you are not well dressed.” This fashion was adopted by the Prince Regent, then by London society and the upper classes. Originally the coat and trousers were different colours, but in the 19th century the suit of a single colour became fashionable. By the late 19th century the black suit had become the uniform of businessmen in England and America. In the 20th century, the black suit was largely replaced by the dark blue or grey suit.
In world culture
In the English language, blue often represents the human emotion of sadness, for example, “He was feeling blue”.
In German, to be “blue” (blau sein) is to be drunk. This derives from the ancient use of urine, particularly the urine of men who had been drinking alcohol in dyeing cloth blue with woad or indigo. It may also be in relation to rain, which is usually regarded as a trigger of depressive emotions.
Blue can sometimes represent happiness and optimism in popular songs, usually referring to blue skies.
In German, a person who regularly looks upon the world with a blue eye is a person who is rather naive.
Blue is commonly used in the Western Hemisphere to symbolise boys, in contrast to pink used for girls. In the early 1900s, blue was the colour for girls, since it had traditionally been the colour of the Virgin Mary in Western Art, while pink was for boys (as it was akin to the colour red, considered a masculine colour).
In China, the colour blue is commonly associated with torment, ghosts, and death. In a traditional Chinese opera, a character with a face powdered blue is a villain.
In Turkey and Central Asia, blue is the colour of mourning.
The men of the Tuareg people in North Africa wear a blue turban called a tagelmust, which protects them from the sun and wind-blown sand of the Sahara desert. It is coloured with indigo. Instead of using dye, which uses precious water, the tagelmust is coloured by pounding it with powdered indigo. The blue colour transfers to the skin, where it is seen as a sign of nobility and affluence. Early visitors called them the “Blue Men” of the Sahara.
In the culture of the Hopi people of the American southwest, blue symbolised the west, which was seen as the house of death. A dream about a person carrying a blue feather was considered a very bad omen.
In Thailand, blue is associated with Friday on the Thai solar calendar. Anyone may wear blue on Fridays and anyone born on a Friday may adopt blue as their colour.
As a national and international colour
Various shades of blue are used as the national colours for many nations.
Azure, a light blue, is the national colour of Italy (from the livery colour of the former reigning family, the House of Savoy). National sport clubs are known as the Azzurri.
Blue and white are the national colours of Scotland, Argentina, El Salvador, Finland, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Micronesia, Nicaragua and Somalia, are the ancient national colours of Portugal and are the colours of the United Nations.
Blue, white and yellow are the national colours of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Uruguay.
Blue, white and green are the national colours of Sierra Leone.
Blue, white and black are the national colours of Estonia.
Blue and yellow are the national colours of Barbados, Kazakhstan, Palau, Sweden, and Ukraine.
Blue, yellow and green are the national colours of Brazil, Gabon, and Rwanda.
Blue, yellow and red are the national colours of Chad, Colombia, Ecuador, Moldova, Romania, and Venezuela.
Blue and red are the national colours of Haiti and Liechtenstein.
Blue, red and white are the national colours of Australia, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Chile, Croatia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, France, Iceland, North Korea, Laos, Liberia, Luxembourg, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Russia, Samoa, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Blue, called St. Patrick’s blue, is a traditional colour of Ireland, and appears on the Arms of Ireland.
In the Byzantine Empire, the Blues and the Greens were the most prominent political factions in the capital. They took their names from the colours of the two most popular chariot racing teams at the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
The word blue was used in England the 17th century as a disparaging reference to rigid moral codes and those who observed them, particularly in blue-stocking, a reference to Oliver Cromwell’s supporters in the parliament of 1653.
In the middle of the 18th century, blue was the colour of Tory party, then the opposition party in England, Scotland and Ireland, which supported the British monarch and power of the landed aristocracy, while the ruling Whigs had orange as their colour. Flags of the two colours are seen over a polling station in the series of prints by William Hogarth called Humours of an election, made in 1754–55. Blue remains the colour of the Conservative Party of the UK today.
By the time of the American Revolution, The Tories were in power and blue and buff had become the colours of the opposition Whigs. They were the subject of a famous toast to Whig politicians by Mrs. Crewe in 1784; “Buff and blue and all of you.” They also became the colours of the American patriots in the American Revolution, who had strong Whig sympathies, and of the uniforms of Continental Army led by George Washington.
During the French Revolution and the revolt in the Vendée that followed, blue was the colour worn by the soldiers of the Revolutionary government, while the royalists wore white.
The Breton blues were members of a liberal, anti-clerical political movement in Brittany in the late 19th century.
The blueshirts were members of an extreme right paramilitary organisation active in Ireland during the 1930s.
Blue is associated with numerous centre-right liberal political parties in Europe, including the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Netherlands), the Reformist Movement and Open VLD (Belgium), the Democratic Party (Luxembourg), Liberal Party (Denmark) and Liberal People’s Party (Sweden).
Blue is the colour of the Conservative Party in Britain and Conservative Party of Canada.
In the United States, television commentators use the term “blue states” for those states which traditionally vote for the Democratic Party in presidential elections, and “red states” for those which vote for the Republican Party.
In Québec Province of Canada, the Blues are those who support sovereignty for Quebec, as opposed to the Federalists. It is the colour of the Parti québécois and the Parti libéral du Québec.
Blue is the colour of the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico.
In Brazil, blue states are the ones in which the Social Democratic Party has the majority, in opposition to the Workers’ Party, usually represented by red.
A blue law is a type of law, typically found in the United States and Canada, designed to enforce religious standards, particularly the observance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest, and a restriction on Sunday shopping.
The Blue House is the residence of the President of South Korea.
Blue is associated with Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, especially with the figure of the Virgin Mary.
Blue in Hinduism: Many of the gods are depicted as having blue-coloured skin, particularly those associated with Vishnu, who is said to be the preserver of the world and thus intimately connected to water. Krishna and Ram, Vishnu’s avatars, are usually blue. Shiva, the destroyer, is also depicted in light blue tones and is called neela kantha, or blue-throated, for having swallowed poison in an attempt to turn the tide of a battle between the gods and demons in the gods’ favour. Blue is used to symbolically represent the fifth, throat, chakra (Vishuddha).
Blue in Judaism: In the Torah, the Israelites were commanded to put fringes, tzitzit, on the corners of their garments, and to weave within these fringes a “twisted thread of blue (tekhelet)”. In ancient days, this blue thread was made from a dye extracted from a Mediterranean snail called the hilazon. Maimonides claimed that this blue was the colour of “the clear noonday sky”; Rashi, the colour of the evening sky. According to several rabbinic sages, blue is the colour of God’s Glory. Staring at this colour aids in mediation, bringing us a glimpse of the “pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity”, which is a likeness of the Throne of God. (The Hebrew word for glory.) Many items in the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, such as the menorah, many of the vessels, and the Ark of the Covenant, were covered with blue cloth when transported from place to place.
This restroom sign on an All Nippon Airways Boeing 767-300 uses blue for the male gender
Blue was first used as a gender signifier just prior to World War I (for either girls or boys), and first established as a male gender signifier in the 1940s.
The blues is a popular musical form created in the United States in the 19th century by African-American musicians, based on African musical roots. It usually expresses sadness and melancholy.
A blue note is a musical note sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than the major scale for expressive purposes, giving it a slightly melancholy sound. It is frequently used in jazz and the blues.
Bluegrass is a subgenre of American country music, born in Kentucky and the mountains of Appalachia. It has its roots in the traditional folk music of the Scottish, and Irish.
In many countries, blue is often used as a colour for guide signs on highways. In the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices used in the United States, as well as in other countries with MUTCD-inspired signage, blue is often used to indicate motorist services.
Many bus and rail systems around the world that colour code rail lines typically include a Blue Line.
The colour blue has also been used extensively by several airlines.
Delta Air Lines has used the colour blue extensively for advertising and on its aircraft for many years.
JetBlue is an American low-cost airline.
Associations and sayings
True blue is an expression in the United States which means faithful and loyal.
In Britain, a bride in a wedding is encouraged to wear “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” as a sign of loyalty and faithfulness. A blue sapphire engagement ring is also considered a symbol of fidelity.
Blue is often associated with excellence, distinction and high performance. The Queen of the United Kingdom and the Chancellor of Germany often wear a blue sash at formal occasions. In the United States, the blue ribbon is usually the highest award in expositions and county fairs. The Blue Riband was a trophy and flag given to the fastest transatlantic steamships in the 19th and 20th century. A blue-ribbon panel is a group of top-level experts selected to examine a subject.
A blue chip stock is a stock in a company with a reputation for quality and reliability in good times and bad. The term was invented in the New York Stock Exchange in 1923 or 1924, and comes from poker, where the highest value chips are blue.
Someone with blue blood is a member of the nobility. The term comes from the Spanish sangre azul, and is said to refer to the pale skin and prominent blue veins of Spanish nobles.
Blue is also associated with labour and the working class. It is the common colour of overalls blue jeans and other working costumes. In the United States “blue collar” workers refers to those who, in either skilled or unskilled jobs, work with their hands and do not wear business suits (“white collar” workers).
Blue is traditionally associated with the sea and the sky, with infinity and distance. The uniforms of sailors are usually dark blue, those of air forces lighter blue. The expression “The wild blue yonder” in the official song of the U.S. Air Force refers to the sky.
Blue is associated with cold water taps which are traditionally marked with blue.
Bluestocking was an unflattering expression in the 18th century for upper-class women who cared about culture and intellectual life and disregarded fashion. It originally referred to men and women who wore plain blue wool stockings instead of the black silk stockings worn in society.
Blue is often associated with melancholy – having the “blues”.
In English-speaking countries, the colour blue is sometimes associated with the risqué, for example “blue comedy”, “blue movie” (a euphemism for a pornographic film) or “turning the air blue” (an idiom referring to profuse swearing).
The color blue is typically associated with autism and the charity Autism Speaks. However, due to controversy surrounding attitudes which the organization promotes pertaining to the disorder, a new, much smaller movement exists to associate autism with the color red.
Many sporting teams make blue their official colour, or use it as detail on kit of a different colour. In addition, the colour is present on the logos of many sports associations. Along with red, blue is the most commonly used non-white colours for teams.
The blues of antiquity
In the late Roman Empire, during the time of Caligula, Nero and the emperors who followed, the Blues were a popular chariot racing team which competed in the Circus Maximus in Rome against the Greens, the Reds and Whites.
In the Byzantine Empire, The Blues and Greens were the two most popular chariot racing teams which competed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Each was connected with a powerful political faction, and disputes between the Green and Blue supporters often became violent. After one competition in 532 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, riots between the two factions broke out, during which the cathedral and much of the centre of Constantinople were burned, and more than thirty thousand people were killed.
In international association football, blue is a common colour on kits, as a majority of nations wear the colours of their national flag. A notable exception is four-time FIFA World Cup winners Italy, who wear a blue kit based on the Azzuro Savoia (Savoy blue) of the royal House of Savoy which unified the Italian states. The team themselves are known as Gli Azzurri (the Blues). Another World Cup winning nation with a blue shirt is France, who are known as Les Bleus (the Blues). Two neighbouring countries with two World Cup victories each, Argentina and Uruguay wear a light blue shirt, the former with white stripes. Uruguay are known as the La Celeste, Spanish for ‘the sky blue one’, while Argentina are known as Los Albicelestes, Spanish for ‘the sky blue and whites’.
Blue features on the logo of football’s governing body FIFA, as well as featuring highly in the design of their website. The European governing body of football, UEFA, uses two tones of blue to create a map of Europe in the centre of their logo. The Asian Football Confederation, Oceania Football Confederation and CONCACAF (the governing body of football in North and Central America and the Caribbean) use blue text on their logos.
North American sporting leagues
In Major League Baseball, the premier baseball league in the United States and Canada, blue is one of the three colours, along with white and red, on the league’s official logo. A team from Toronto, Ontario are nicknamed the Blue Jays. Seventeen other teams either regularly feature blue hats or utilise the colour in their uniforms.
The National Basketball Association, the premier basketball league in the United States and Canada, also has blue as one of the colours on their logo, along with red and white also, as did its female equivalent, the WNBA, until March 28, 2011, when the latter adopted an orange and white logo. Former NBA player Theodore Edwards was nicknamed “Blue”. Fifteen NBA teams feature the colour in their uniforms.
The National Football League, the premier American football league in the United States, also uses blue as one of three colours, along with white and red, on their official logo. Thirteen NFL teams prominently feature the colour .
The National Hockey League, the premier Ice hockey league in Canada and the United States, uses blue on its official logo. Blue is the main colour of many teams in the league: the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks and the Winnipeg Jets.
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