A few months ago, I happened across a reference to the late 19th century notion that the Jews suffered disproportionately from colorblindness. This malady, it was argued at the time, explained a lot about them, most especially their putative penchant for things bold and flashy or what we today would most likely call “bling.”
Whether true or false, popular belief in the etiology of taste set me thinking about the ways in which color is as much a symbolic property as a physical one, a form of delineation that is simultaneously cultural and material.
Attributing colorblindness to the Jews was but one of many instances throughout Jewish history in which color was deployed by the powers that be to distinguish the Jews from everyone else. Rendering them visually as well as theologically a people apart, the forcible wearing of reds and yellows also stamped the Jews as an alien other.
In striking contrast to the Old World, where the relationship between the Jews and color was one of estrangement, the relationship between the Jews and color in the New World assumed a different and decidedly more beneficent hue. In this part of the world, color spoke of possibility.
Consider, for instance, the popularity of “Color Me Beautiful,” a how-to manual on looking one’s best. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, virtually every Jewish woman I knew owned a copy — and for good reason. It took the guesswork out of getting dressed. All you needed to know was whether you were an “Autumn,” a “Winter,” a “Spring,” or a “Summer,” a category of being that came with its very own portable, color chart.
A newfangled spin on the calorie counters of yesteryear, the chart fit handily into your handbag where, when the occasion warranted, it could be easily retrieved and put to good use. Reassuring as well as accessible, the “Color Me Beautiful” color code reduced the possibility of a fashion faux pas: If you stayed well within the lines and stuck to the color palette associated with your type, success was assured.
The judicious use of color didn’t just make things right. It also made them better — and blonder. Hair coloring had been around for ages, but the practice had been associated with the demimonde, not with the girl next door. The introduction of a product known as Miss Clairol changed that association: Coloring one’s hair became as respectable as the wearing of lipstick. When this no-muss, no-fuss hair dye took the American marketplace by storm in the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.