lady in a green dress

As part of my research for last week’s essay about A Matter of Life and Death, I’ve spent several weeks watching and re-watching old Technicolor films, such as Meet Me in St Louis. Having read an essay about this film’s production, and the fractious relationship between director Vincent Minnelli and Technicolor’s Natalie Kalmus, I was paying keen attention to the on-screen palette, in particular during the dance scene where Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland) plot to hijack Lucille’s (June Lockhart’s) dance card. Kalmus had apparently objected to the two red-headed sisters wearing dresses of bright scarlet and emerald green together: two complementary colours which would compete for the viewer’s on-screen attention.

Minelli ignored Kalmus’ advice, and, the effect of the two dresses in the scene is much more arresting than it is distracting: the two bold colours allowing the viewer to immediately identify the figures of the two sisters as they whirl among the crowd of dancers. When Esther and Rose stood together, scarlet against emerald, I thought what a striking chromatic device this was, and it occurred to me that I’d seen a similar on-screen juxtaposition between a green dress and a red one fairly recently.

In Celine Sciama’s Portrait de la jeunne fille en feu (2019) (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), the green dress selected for the portrait’s subject, Héloise (Adèle Haenel), provides the same strong, complementary contrast with the with the red dress worn by the portrait’s artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant).

Héloise’s green dress is perhaps the most important symbol in this deeply symbolic film, the focal object of the narrative’s exploration of power, desire, expression and repression.

When it comes to iconic, cinematic dresses — those whose colour becomes somehow emblematic of the desire or desirability of its wearer — I can think of red dresses, black dresses and blue dresses; dresses of hot pink, of shimmering silver grey and glorious gold. But green? There really are relatively few iconic green dresses, and, in the cinema of the west at least, green is hardly ever used as this kind of on-screen device. Céline Sciama’s choice of a green dress certainly adds to the distinctive nature of the palette of her visually pared-back film, and makes the on-screen presence of both dress and portrait much more interesting.

It’s also an unusual chromatic choice, because green was not a particularly common colour for eighteenth-century dresses.

Mid eighteenth-century dress of green silk damask. Met Museum.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, green dyes were formed by mixing, or overlaying, different blue and yellow natural shades like woad, indigo, and weld. Yellow shades were notoriously fugitive, and it was very difficult to create green pigments that were both bold and colourfast. But, in 1778, chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, published his research on a brand-new green pigment he’d managed to create by mixing white arsenic and potassium together in a copper solution. Depending on where you were located, this new shade was known as Emerald Green, Paris Green, Schweinfurt Green, Vert Anglais, or Scheele’s Green.

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Die Stickerin (1817). National Museum, Warsaw.

Following Scheele’s discovery, new, paints, dyes and pigments were rapidly produced and, from being a relatively rare colour in eighteenth-century dress, green exploded into fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Miniature portrait of a woman in a green riding habit (c.1800) National Museum of Sweden
Portrait of Mrs Alderman Cox (1814) (V&A)
Samuel Freeman, Portrait of Laetitia Elizabeth Landon (the famous poet, LEL). n.d. (V&A)

But the problem with the beautiful new shades of arsenical green was, of course that, they were toxic. As Alison Matthews David has shown (and to whom my discussion here is indebted), arsenic was present not only in the fabric of nineteenth-century dresses, but in the trim, flowers and foliage that were such a feature of the era’s millinery. . . .

Floral headdress, with potentially arsenical green gauze. 1850s. Boston MFA.

. . . and even in the prints and plates which promoted the nineteenth-century’s new green dresses to fashionable consumers.

Many nineteenth-century fashion plates, depicting the new modern greens and purples, test positive for arsenic
American still-life painter, Raphaelle Peale died from mercury and arsenic poisoning – a consequence of his work with taxidermy chemicals (during work in his father’s museum) and daily exposure to arsenical pigments.

Everyone knew that these new, bright, greens needed arsenic to produce them, yet despite growing awareness of arsenic’s toxicity, bright green remained a fashionable colour well into the 1860s, promoted in part by the wardrobes of royal celebrities, like the young Queen Victoria.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Queen Victoria in an emerald dress (1855). Royal Collection.

Not until 1862, following the publication of an article in The Times by chemist A.W. Hoffman, did the ubiquitous fashionable popularity of green dresses suddenly go into reverse.

The Arsenic Waltz: The New Dance of Death (Dedicated to the Green Wreath and Dress Mongers) Punch 8th February, 1862. Hoffman’s article had been published the previous week. Wellcome Collection.

Focussing on the well-publicised cases of young women who had died from arsenic poisoning through their daily handling of artificial foliage and flowers, Hoffman revealed just how toxic the copper arsenite and coppper acetoarsenite used to produce a green dress could be.

Dress (1868) which has tested positive for arsenic. Met Museum.

While fashionable consumers rejected arsenic’s poisonous green, working women, with jobs in poorly-regulated industries like millinery and matchmaking, were, between the 1860s and the early 1900s, exposed to toxic substances every day. Thus, in Paris, London, and Vienna, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the colour green became the focus first of aversion, and then later, superstition, among women in the working trades of millinery and dressmaking. Generations of seamstresses worked in environments where green, because it had once been toxic, was subsequently shunned as an “unlucky” colour.

The appearance of green dresses in late nineteenth-century portraiture, is with the exception of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, relatively unusual. I love the moody hues of Thomas Edwin Mostyn’s The Green Gown, a portrait of a sitter who is thought to be his daughter, Marjorie

In response to the enquiry of a 2005 documentary about why the fashion house, Chanel, did not include green in its collections, the answer was that French “seamstresses don’t like green,” and regarded the colour as a carrier of bad luck. Such superstitions about green, which persist in some haute couture contexts to this day, arise, at least in part, from the colour’s nineteenth-century toxicity.

Ethel Brown, Lady in a green dress (1923) V&A.

Not until the 1920s when dyestuffs were better regulated, would the green dress have another fashionable heyday, featuring prominently in the collections of Paul Poiret, Jeanne Paquin and Worth.

Green dress by Paul Poiret (1925). Met Museum.
Costume design by Reginald de Veulles (1926). V&A

The green flapper dresses of the mid 1920s immediately make me think of Cyd Charisse in Technicolor classic, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) . . .

. . . where a bold green dress is bound up in the role of Gotta’ Dance’s archetypal vamp.

Henri Matisse, Laurette in Green (1917)

Green robes and dresses abound in works of Fauvist and Modernist portraiture . . .

Kees van Dongen, Woman in a Black Hat (1908)
Jane Peterson, The Green Dress (1920)
Tamara de Lempicka, Girl in Green, with Gloves (1929)
Mabel Alvarez, self portrait (1923)
Herbert James Gunn, Portrait of a Lady in a Green Dress (1929)

. . and emerald green enjoyed a 1960s revival in Mary Quant’s mod style . . .

Mary Quant green mini-dress (1966) V&A

But, other than the gown of glorious green silk worn by Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the only other example that I can call to mind from recent decades of a really memorable on-screen green dress is the one designed by Jacqueline Durran, and worn by Kiera Knightley in Atonement (2007). (Can you think of any others?)

As Michel Pastoureau has shown, in the west, the colour green has, for many centuries, attracted a level of opprobium, and been the focus of superstition, in a way that’s quite unique. Long before its association with the toxic, arsenical fashions of the 1800s, green was regarded as unlucky by the actors of Shakesperean England (who refused to wear the colour on stage) as well as often banned from ships by sailors (who believed the colour attracted lightning strikes). A fugitive, difficult shade to develop in any natural dye or pigment, green was, for centuries linked to everything that was regarded as unstable, or fickle, untrustworthy or changeable: the devil and his creatures, capricious fairies, goblins, sprites.

George Sheringham, costume design for Iolanthe (1932). V&A.

But greens of all kinds are glorious, beautiful, restful shades: as Kermit reminds us, big like an ocean, important like a mountain, tall like a tree.

Speaking personally, I love to design and knit with green. It’s a colour I often wear, and have a lot of in my wardrobe. Green is also the colour of one of what is still one of my all-time favourite dresses, a wonderfully excessive combination of sage-green velvet with green liberty “peacock” Tana lawn, that I picked up in a charity shop in the mid 1990s, and wore constantly for many years. Here I am, back in 1999, with Tom, outside my house in York, wearing that green dress.

Sixteen years after this photograph was taken, Tom and I wore green tartan at our wedding at Ìle ghorm an fheòir (green, grassy Islay).

To different people, green can mean many different things, but the green dresses in my wardrobe are the repository of my own happy memories.

Do you love or loathe green dresses? What associations does green have for you? Tell us below in the comments!

Further reading

Scott Higgins, “Color at the Center: Minnelli’s Technicolor Style in Meet Me in St Louis,” Style in Cinema 32: 3 (1998) 449-470 

Alison Matthews David, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress, Past and Present (2016)

Michel Pastoureau, Green: The History of a Colour (2014)