Puce is many colors and no color. It’s defined in so many ways as almost to defy all meaning. The only thing everyone agrees on is that it’s not a primary color and it’s not on the yellow spectrum. But I am devoted to puce because there are shades called puce that are breathtakingly beautiful and so unique that there is no other word to describe them.
Francophiles probably already know that puce is French for “flea”. This is our first and most important clue as to what puce might truly be. Fleas’ bodies, magnified, range from dark brown along their backs to bright orangey-red-brown along the belly area. It is fun to note that in French, the world “puce” is used in many contexts. It’s an insect, it’s a color, it’s your sweetheart, it’s something tiny such as a small pearl, it’s an electronic part. In researching puce clothing on French sites I had to search for “couleur puce” (“puce color”). When I entered “robe puce” (“puce dress”) I ended up with a myriad of pictures of people’s babies (“ma puce”, translated roughly as “my sweetie”) wearing dresses in every possible shade, and I discovered a brand called “Marie Puce”, a French maker of children’s clothing. It was rather stunning to learn of ladies calling their babies, in essence, “my flea”.
And now, a history break. While Wiki sites inform us that the use of the term “puce” as a color dates back to 14th century France, Marie Antoinette supposedly popularized it in 1775 when her royal husband described her new dress as “flea-colored.” (Husbands, can’t live with ’em, etc. etc.) Since weird nature-names for colors were popular in her circles… a fashionable color was “crown prince poop”… the Queen of Fashion seized on the idea and as a result different shades of the color, named for parts and life cycles of the flea, were created. Despite hours and hours of searches over these past several moons, I still don’t know what color Marie Antoinette’s courtiers and ladies were wearing when they sported “flea’s back” (“dos de puce”) or “flea’s belly” (“ventre de puce”) though my guess is that “flea’s back” was a dark shade and “flea’s belly” a brighter one.
But rocketing back to present day, you will find the following definitions of puce:
1. A shade of green. Source: chatting individuals and a few catalog companies. Let’s settle this point right now. It’s not. Chartreuse is a shade of green. Fleas are not green. Case closed. I have spoken.
2. A shade of purple. This is the most common English language definition you’ll find. Those who embrace the purple definition describe it as brownish-purple (the most common), dark purple or dark greyish-purple. My Halloween costume, shown in my November 2012 entry, falls into this category. (But I was wrong when I said it’s the Marie Antoinette definition.) Here is Lena Dunham wearing this color, described as “eggplant” by the commentators:
3. A shade of red. Those who espouse the concept of puce as a red shade describe it as dark red or violet-red. From the discussions I’ve read, this concept seems to arise from the idea of puce not being the color of a flea, but rather of the blood-color poop stains they leave on sheets. Call it “sang de puce”?
4. A shade of pink. This is the philosophy embraced by the puce fans who have a kind of running joke about reviving puce’s popularity. There are buttons and bumper stickers in greyish lavender-pink that say “Puce: It’s a Color”, “Give Puce a Chance” (I have the button) and “Got Puce?”. When you google puce photos, greyish-lavender-pink frequently comes up. Some computer programs define puce in this tone. (The Title and Subtitle of this blog consist of this shade. Yes, I picked the color.)
4. A Shade of Brown. If you want to be a purist and stick with the definition provided by the country that started the madness, this would be the way to go. The French color website pourpre.com defines it as “dark reddish brown,” declares it to be in the brown category, and places it in the orange-red-brown spectrum, not a spec of blue to be seen and thus flat-out contradicting the common English-language definition of “brownish purple.” Below is my attempt to depict this color.
French dictionaries describe it the same way; one French site called it a reddish “marron,” marron meaning brown with a hint of red in it. In other words, puce is a redder reddish brown. A French wiki site that shows many shades of brown present both puce and marron, and the two are almost indistinguishable. (Maroon, in English, is a dark brownish-red, rather than a red-tinged brown.)
There is a lovely French language website, Le Etoiles de ArtLubie, that depicts paintings of ladies in gowns, and two of them date back to the first half of the 19th century, during a period when puce was popular. The site describes the dresses worn in two of the pictures as “puce” — they are of an intense orange-brown, very similar to ginger, and nothing remotely akin to the greyish pink-violets and lavender-browns shown on English language sites.
Pantone, the English language color experts who dictate on-trend clothing and decorator colors to much of the fashion world, sends samples of their colors to your home for a nominal price. My color sample of “puce” is a deep brown tinged with red-purple. So it’s almost like the French shade of dark puce, but less orangey.
5. And finally…Orange and blue mixed together. As the right combination of orange and blue would create a lavendar-brown shade, this makes sense, but the problem is that the wrong shade of orange will make the color come out a sickly green. Hmmm…perhaps that’s the reason for the Puce Green myth.
So What’s the Takeaway? My mother always taught me to keep up with the times and since most modern sites see puce as one or another shade of violet often mixed with pink or red and usually mixed with grey or brown, I’m going with that view of puce, and embracing the use of the word where the shade is so unusual, there’s no other word for it. Greyish magenta and brownish grape-purple don’t have their own color names so the word “puce” fills a need in those instances. Dark reddish brown already has an English color name, mahogany. Flea’s belly is ginger or sienna. So while I respect the French definition as appropriate to their language needs, I think that for English speakers, the purply puce works best.