Puce Redux

My friend, Ron Serdiuk, proprietor of the wonderous Pulp Fiction bookstore in Brisbane, just added this comment to the long ago puce thread. I think it worthy of elevation to a post of its own. He wrote:

I know that the historical origins were worked over and the flea blood/shit thang was put forward and everyone was fairly happpy with that and it seemed to be the end of the discussion . . .

but I don’t think that’s all there is.

I think the actual colour changed—and relatively quickly in hostorical terms—and became something else entirely.

Certainly now – according to Richard (source: decorator and paint charts) and Leanne (source: printers’ colour guides)—t’s either a cherry-ish red or an orange-y pink.

But even as far back as Heyer’s georgian setings I think it had already taken this road. whenever it’s used in her works it either—if used in the context of a male wearing it suggest dandyism or effeminacy—or when a woman is involved it seems to be vulgarity or a younger girl wearing something showy and inappropriate.

Neither suggest a sedate flea blood/shit purple-y brown to this little black duck.

I think we need a whole social history here. could be a great idea for a thesis . . . or maybe a popular history volume to supplement that wonderful book “mauve” from a few years back – (tho’ doubt one could find that puce made nearly as earth-shattering an impact as that aforementioned shade of purple! astonishing!)

One way or another, it aint over yet . . .

Says Justine: Interesting . . . there certainly aren’t many people who can carry off pinky-orange! Though I’m not sure I’d describe this colour as “sedate”.


  1. Roger on #

    Does the redoutable Miss Heyer ever detail what she means by puce? What I mean to say, Mr Serdiuk, is what is your evidence that the colour Heyer refers to is not the colour made to disguise flea’s blood?

  2. ron on #

    no. the redoubtable miss heyer doesn’t ever describe puce at all that i can remember – don’t think she ever compared it to some other known quantity, like a particular flower or anything. but again, the flea blood/shit, brown-ey/purple-ey colour just doesn’t seem to fit the context. whenever she has a male wearing it it is scorned as effete or effeminate – and surely this wouldn’t apply to a shade of brown – ? as i said before, whenever it’s mentioned as being worn by a woman it is usually referred to jokingly or negatively as if it was gaudy and not in the best of taste. worn by arrivistes or young girls who don’t know better yet. again – why the fuss over a shade of brown.

    of course, maybe i’ve got the wrong end of the stick and the point was that it was flea blood/pooh coloured and that was considered downmarket – but that doesn’t seem to fit the context.

    will endeavour to research thoroughly.

  3. Justine on #

    Hmmm, I think I’m with Roger. While you’ve proven that the colour has changed by this century, I’m not convinced it had by the time Heyer writes about or in. So many of Heyer’s fashion rules on colour seem wholly arbitrary. Freddie’s sister in Cotillion is always being told she can’t wear certain colours because she’s a blonde that I think look perfectly lovely on blondes. So it wouldn’t surprise that they had a strange hatred of puce. Most fashion rules make no sense. Why can’t you wear white shoes after labour day?

  4. ron on #

    more puce stuff! found a website that talks about regency colours and tries to explain what they are for modern readers:

    “One of the more obscure colors used in Regency novels is puce. It’s a color nearly always treated with disdain but what color was it, really? It might help to know that the word puce comes, as so many others, from the French. Puce is the French word for flea! Yes, the color is a brownish-purple or a purplish-pink, the color of the blood-sucking flea; coagulated blood in other words. It may seem astonishing to the modern reader that one of the most popular colors in 1805e. was just puce…”

    the swatch of colour they provide is much less the brownish-purple and more the a red-ish brown. the picture of a china cup they also give has a very red-pink-crimson design on it. it certainly isn’t as chocolately-brown as the puce webite that justine linked.

    the site is worth a look as it also gives an explanation of pomona green and coquelicot 🙂

    link is:


  5. Pamela on #

    Ngaio Marsh, who was writing at the same time as Heyer, albeit setting her books in her own present (1930s) has an old-fashioned character refer to someone as wearing ‘a puce toque’, and then has another character (an artist) correct him: not a toque, but a very nice ‘purple beret’ (Death in a White Tie). This suggests to me that in the ’30s puce referred to a colour close to purple. Does this help?

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