The color fuchsia

Oh, all the fuchsia!

One of the major frustrations for anyone who has ever searched for fuchsias on the Internet is the seemingly indiscriminate use of fuchsia to describe eye-popping brightish-purplish-violetish-pinkish hues. Maybe magenta. Sometimes cerise. But often just any plain-old pedestrian pink brightly tarted up for the catwalk.

From eBay to Esty, it seems impossible to cut through the pink clutter. Irritatingly, it’s also maddeningly misspelled as fuschia or fushia, or whatever & worse. In fact, if it’s misspelled you can largely assume the flashy color is being advertised.

How did this double life of naughty negligees and spiked heels, pink panties and lipstick, glowing fingernail polish and cellphone cases, all being offered in hot, flirty fuchsia come to be?
Well, for most of the first hundred years after their introduction into gardens fuchsias abound, but fuchsia doesn’t exist at all.

What? No color fuchsia? That seems odd, you say? Time to set the record straight. From Wikipedia to eHow, there is so much misinformation.

Fuchsias are certainly popular plants, from their first arrival in the greenhouse and garden in the late 1790s to the present day. Almost emblematic of the whole Nineteenth Century, in fact. On the fashion scene, they frequent embroidery and white lace, and their pendant blossoms dangle in fringes and tassels of all sorts. They adorn as jewelry and are cut into glass. And fuchsias were sometimes called Lady’s Eardrops. Brightly colored but perfectly ladylike, elegant and respectable. Even saintly at times. So what happened to that gentle, but consumptive and doomed soul at the heart of The Fuchsia—a sentimental tale of Victorian moralizing published in 1853—on her way towards the Twentieth Century?

A complete makeover, it seems.

The first written records in which fuchsia clearly alludes to color—and not flower—only start appearing in the early 1890s. That’s almost a hundred years after they first arrive in the gardenscapes of Europe and North America. In a forest of actual fuchsia trees throughout the nineteenth century, a simple note written on January 6, 1895 in the Daily News of London sums up the rather sudden appearance of the color by dryly intoning “bright fuchsia-red has become a favourite”.

And that novel sense of color, despite a few sporadic premonitions, had only just surfaced a couple of years before. Fuchsia quite literally burst onto the scene in the early 1890s, heralded from newspapers as
being among the most fashionable of new hues for ladies' dresses and hats. That original fuchsia, though, wasn’t quite the brilliant eye-popping purple-pink acknowledged today. As the name attests, it was necessary to qualify the stylish new color as “fuchsia-red” and not simply “fuchsia”. Red is the dominant effect of many fuchsia shrubs in the garden, anyway. This Urfuchsie had more in common with the intense crimson-red or scarlet of the flower’s sepals and it often kept company with "poppy," “tomato” and “currant,” or with a hint of the cherry in “cerise”.

Why the sudden appearance of fashionable “fuchsia-red” only after almost a century of equally fashionable fuchsias in gardens and on windowsills?

Fads. Fashion fads. Then as now.

Fuchsia-red emerged from a general embrace of various hues of red by trend-setting society ladies in the early 1890s. This trend was especially prominent—and noticed worldwide—at the
Grand Pix de Paris of 1893. Fashion types of the age (as ever) looked for novel and tempting metaphors to describe newly chic
shades and names in the news were often plucked straight out of the air and arbitrarily applied to colors with abandon. The popularity of the fuchsia as a garden and greenhouse plant was simply pressed into service and the flower cast in a headlining role on the world's style stage as a variation of red.

Similarly, Salammbô, the exotic Carthaginian heroine of Gustave Flaubert's eponymous historical novel first published in 1862, was briefly pressed into service as a shade of red in 1892. The color Salammbô was described as a “brilliant fuchsia tint” even. Far different from the Lady of the Fuchsias. What did she really have to do with red, though? Nothing. But she is, in fact, a real hint of a sexier, more salacious fuchsia to come.

Since the actual garden flower was well-known and widely recognized in a fairly diverse range of color—from turkey red to lavender through pink and into the palest cream and white, in oranges and salmons even—it's inevitable that a certain amount of color confusion set in. The intended hue is often hard to discern precisely. Shades of brighter purple-pink enter the mix to compete with darker hues and contemporary writers regularly feel the need to clarify by referring to “fuchsia-purple”, ”fuchsia-red" or "fuchsia-pink.” Often they simply hedge their bets by calling it “shades of fuchsia.” Sometimes, if we’re lucky, they helpfully define the intended color for perplexed readers, such as “…fuchsia, a deep wine magenta.” Or, it’s paired with other colors that make the intent clearer: “There are… several charming reds, including fuchsia, geranium and brick red.”

The taste for stylish fuchsia-red wanes and waxes as well. As early as 1894 a reporter asserts, “…fuchsia, reddish purple, comes to the front again, though now considered rather passé by fashionable people.” Countered in 1895, of course, by “bright fuchsia red has become such a favorite that there is no likelihood of its being given up for some time…”

So it goes over the next twenty years and trendy “Fuchsia-red" does manage to stage occasional reappearances into the Twentieth Century. In spite of the fact that fuchsias themselves
are increasingly considered out-dated as the Victorian Age merges into the Edwardian and then World War I pulls an abrupt curtain over any lingering afterglow of the Belle Époque. By about 1920, a somewhat-perplexed writer even calls the blooms “that old-fashioned flower” when they briefly resurface on ladies’ hats.

So, how could an outdated color associated with a fusty old flower come to be seen as so hot, hot, hot?

It’s really only starting in the late Teens into the early Twenties that the electrified, modern fuchsia finally, fully blossoms on the fashion scene. And it blossoms strongly when it does. At first, the myriad shades of fuchsia seem to be fighting it out. As late as 1923, London’s
Daily Mail still reports “Colours: Peach, Apple, Apricot, Mauve, Fuchsia, Periwinkle.”
Respectable garden shades, to be sure, but fuchsia’s already well on the move. In 1921, it’s extolled as being among “the new shades…that newest of all—fuchsia.” Hardly the reaction, one might think, over a color sense that first hit the scene in grandmother’s day almost thirty years earlier in the 1890s.

Something strange seems to be happening to the tint. Attention is definitely shifting away from the old-fashioned fuchsia-red of the flower’s sepals, focusing more brazenly on associations with sex; Certainly there have been sensual comparisons of the slow unfolding of the flower’s inner petals as the blossoms languidly split open. Or the faster sensual pleasures of popping fuchsia buds open. (And there’s also the issue of spelling and pronunciation, which lurks just below the surface and has always caused titters in English-speaking countries.) Emily Dickinson already caught on to the metaphors in one of her poems in 1862.

I tend my flowers for thee-
Bright Absentee!
My Fuchsia's Coral Seams
Rip-while the Sower-dreams-

Fashion magazines increasingly use fuchsia to mean a new, stylishly bright magenta fabric, such as on a Lucien Lelong coat "with a quilted lining of fuchsia satin" featured in the Ladies Home Journal in 1925. Colorized illustrations of this elegant garment,
folded out coyly at the collar and the lap, exposing the interior almost as if a fuchsia's sepals were slowly splitting open around the bursting petals, confirm the intent. Shades of Emily Dickinson!

By 1930, the transformation seems complete. The appearance of the first edition of an influential new reference work, A Dictionary of Color, by Aloys Maerz and Morris Paul, codifies fuchsia/magenta as daring designers and trend-setters continuously reach for the seminal book to transfer its definitions from their shelves to their clothes. A second edition is released in 1950. Of course, fuchsia has become ever brighter and bolder since then. And more clichéed.

Why this apparent shift and seemingly sudden rage for an exciting, seductive fuchsia when, again, the real blossoms have such a rich range of hues? And the new fuchsia is even further removed from the actual flower than the old fuchsia? Especially starting at a time when the earlier popularity of the flower had waned considerably? Fuchsia fatigue, in fact, had already started to set in a bit before the First World War and it’s devastating effects on society and its gardens.

The revival had little to do with the actual flower. It was chemistry meets fashion.

By the Twenties, styles and tastes were rapidly moving beyond the drab days of WWI and that lost world of old. Through the decade, washes of vivid pink, cerise and magenta would enliven fashion plate after fashion plate. But these were NOT your grandmother’s garden colors. Or her fashion reds.

The new magenta/fuchsia of the modern age is much more daring and alive than that that old fuchsia could ever had been in its age of corsets and bustles. It was brash and frankly uninhibited. It was a bit naughty. Movies may still have been
in black and white, but the taste of the Jazz Age is reflected in its love of color and sparkle. The Roaring Twenties finally roared off into the Thirties on even-stronger chrome and black, highlighted with hues like cobalt and turquoise and bright, sexy fuchsia. And never looked back.

Well… Almost never looked back.

You see, the chemistry behind fuchsia/magenta had actually been around for quite a while before the Twenties embraced it with such fervor. Even well before the fashionistas of the Gay Nineties were so taken with diverse shades of red.

Since 1859, in fact. About that year, the French manufacturer Renard Frères et Franc coined the trade name fuchsine for a synthetic red aniline dye, rosaniline hydrochloride, it manufactured. (The story of the rise and fall of Renard Frères, fuchsine and its involvement in early patent disputes and monopolistic sheenanigans is utterly fascinating but THAT will have to wait for another bog post.)

The chemical dye itself had been developed a little earlier. Rosaniline hydrochloride was first prepared in Germany in 1858 by August Wilhelm von Hofmann from aniline and carbon tetrachloride. Meanwhile in France, François-Emmanuel Verguin formulated the same substance independently that same year and patented it.

Renard Frères et Franc's choice of a trade name was influenced by the fact that fuchsias were simply a fashionable garden plant—and not really intended as a reference to the actual color of some of its flowers—and that Fuchs, which means fox in German, conveniently translated into French as Renard, or fox. Fuchsine. Part fashion, part fox. This isn’t even speculation. The firm itself stated the motivation behind the name in 1861. With the contemporary taste for fuchsias very much still on the rise in gardens and on windowsills, the new trade name was a brilliant marketing ploy to sell the dye they manufactured. Even if the exact color match was a bit dodgy. Interestingly, the original association of the first part of the chemical name, rosaniline, is to the bright pink of some roses.

Magenta, the synonymous contemporary trade name for the same dye in England, was a similar ploy to cash in on popularity and name recognition. Even more so than fuchsine, magenta originally had nothing to do with color; it was simply the name of a town in Italy where Napolean III happened to achieve a renowned military victory over the Austrians in 1859. The Battle of Magenta was in the news. Like Salammbô in her later day, the name was on everyone’s lips when it was coopted for the dye.

This old rosaniline hydrochloride dye, though, was capable not only of the subtle restraint of the Nineteenth Century, but also of the intense flushes of color that could satisfy the roaring desires of the Twenties. By this period, the taste for fuchsias the flowers was in momentary decline. They were now infrequent in the greenhouse, in the garden, or on the windowsill. Fuchsias might have been ubiquitous in nineteenth-century parlors, but they no longer seemed to have much of a place in modern living rooms. The grand public displays of the Victorians, where ten-foot-tall pyramids of fuchsias would excite such Oohs & Aahs, went the way of the war after 1914. If people thought about growing fuchsias in 1920, it was often in association with dated tastes of the past.

Yet oddly, fuchsia the color was spreading and thriving. The fuchsine used by the fabric industry (often misspelled fuchsin) almost certainly had a direct influence on the sudden and strong appearance of fuchsia as a chic color name standing alone. But this time fuchsia was a very brilliant, pure magenta rather than a duller purple-red. The modern perception of fuchsia undoubtedly directly followed from the use and name of this old industrial dye, fuchsine, and the increasing trendiness of the strong colors it could produce, rather than from any real association with the momentarily fusty old garden flower.

No doubt much fuchsine-dyed cloth simply became fuchsia-colored clothes. It certainly sounded prettier and was easier to say. Realizing the role fuchsine played in the development of the concentrated modern fuchsia/magenta also helps explain why observers are often so puzzled as to how that extreme fuchsia color could have come from that fuchsia flower. Fuchsine, by the way, is still around in several different chemical formulations. It’s also used as a cell stain in biology and, surprisingly, sometimes as a disinfectant.

Since the Twenties, there have been periodic revivals of the dash and excitement that fuchsine brought to modern clothing. One such peak—the pinnacle in fact—was the influential and iconic “Autumn Fuchsia” article in the August 1957 issue of Vogue magazine. The picture illuminating the cover is a masterpiece of staging and the ultimate evocation of fuchsia by Norman Parkinson. All use of the color must simply measure up to “Autumn Fuchsia”.

Each decade since has seen similar attempts but they just seem weaker and weaker as the hue gets hotter and hotter, growing ever more desperate for attention. And now we have the Internet and eBay… Oh well. Today, fashion fuchsia is even considered a slightly less saturated hue than fuchsia and it's synonymous with Hollywood cerise, or sometimes simply Hollywood, in the fashion world.

For an even brighter dash of fuchsia brought to you courtesy of HTML, web fuchsia (#FF00FF) is the same as full magenta (#FF00FF), that is, equal parts of red and blue. Please put on your darkest sunglasses before attempting to code it into your website. Other more-subtle shades of fuchsia shining out across the web include antique fuchsia (#915C83), deep fuchsia (#C154C1), fashion fuchsia (#F400A1), fuchsia rose (#C74375), light fuchsia pink (#F984EF), neon fuchsia (#FE59C2) and royal fuchsia (#CA2C92). And here’s cerise (#DE3163) for good measure.

P.S. The “Fusha” image at the top is indeed an actual restaurant in Manhattan. And, OK, I admit it, I couldn't resist eating there. Despite the annoying and dumbed-down spelling, the pan-Asian food's really not bad at all. I quite enjoyed my duck & night-market-noodley dish. Just tell ‘em FUCHSIAS in the City sent you, if you happen by for a meal.