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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

A Color Memorial

This time of year is bittersweet, as young men and women make the transition from high school to college or college to the world of work. Some may join the military. Nearly on the eve of Memorial Day in America, we remember those who chose the path of military service and paid the ultimate price.

Military uniforms provide a fascinating glimpse into the past on many levels. They are the source of pride, group identity as well as social/political history. The care that goes into maintaining the many bits and pieces of a uniform is astounding. Every part has a name and a purpose. If a nineteenth century military sailing ship was considered the most highly technical system of its time, akin to a modern warship or aircraft of today, it would stand to reason that the uniforms of its crew would not have been second-rate, antiquated throwbacks to the dark ages.

The extraordinary use of braids, metal attachments, buttons and ribbons provide the visual appeal and complexity of military uniforms. This certainly is the case with regard to the use of color. In focusing on the 18th century military dress, the red sashes, linings and brightly crimson-colored jackets display the vivid red color derived from the sacrifice made by our wonderfully, useful, insect friend, the cochineal bug, as well as the dye extracted from madder roots.

In the first two decades of the 1500s, steady growth was noted in the dye-plant industry. The cultivation of plants like madder and woad met the demand for colors in the textile industry. The Spanish were insightful when observing the natives of Mexico who harvested the cochineal insect as a source of red dye. They quickly imported it to Europe and within 20 years developed methods of producing bright red cloth using the small but intensely color-laden cochineal insect. Natural dyes derived from plants and insects were the industry standard until 1856 when Perkins discovered and perfected aniline dye. These dyes revolutionized the industry and the variety of hues that could be derived from these synthetic colorants created a new market that blossomed quickly. I will write more about the abrupt transition from natural to synthetic dyes in a future essay.

An interesting source of information provided insight into the use of madder as a colorant for military clothing in Britain. It appears that madder root, the raw material that is used for Alizarin Crimson, was grown extensively in the 1700s. In an attempt to protect the madder production industry, military uniforms adopted Alizarin Crimson as a colorant for soldier’s jackets. These outer garments became know as “Redcoats.” the term everyone child has used to describe British soldiers during the war for American independence. In addition to British Regulars, the Royal Marines employed a red jacket that would stand out distinctly from naval officers when serving on a ship.

The American military did not adopt bright red for any combat uniforms, a smart move given that red clothing stands out distinctly in the field of combat. However, red has been used as an accent in many branches of military service. Red sashes and ribbons have adorned various officers and enlisted personnel. Today one of the most distinct uses of red is the blood stripe on a Marine officer’s uniform. The origin of the colorant is not published but is probably a durable, modern, synthetic dye.

It is best to remember the men and women from all countries who fill the interiors of military uniforms and carry out their assigned duties. For those who wear uniforms, it is a source of pride and a reminder of an oath to honor and defend. For many unfortunate souls it was the last article of clothing they would ever wear. They served faithfully and their brave efforts are remembered each year on the last Monday in the month of May, known in America as Memorial Day and similarly on November 11th in Britain on Remembrance Day.

The Syntax of Color

Originally published, May 2005

The Grammar of Color

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