The Sexy-Gross Story of Puce

Cultural histories of unusual hues.

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Puce is a color that’s been around for as long as we’ve been spilling blood and watching it dry, but it didn’t get a name until the summer of 1775 when French dressmaker Rose Bertin made Marie-Antoinette a gown in a color that blurred the lines between brown and maroon with only a hint of pinkish-gray. According to a biography of Bertin, the Louis XVI strode into a room where his wife was hanging out, wearing her brand new silk dress, and exclaimed, “That is puce!” He had observed, and rightfully so, that her dress was the same color as a flea (or, in French, “une puce”).

Considering what happens next, I imagine he meant this as praise. While that’s bug-colored doesn’t sound like a fantastic compliment to receive from a significant other, the French court went wild for this King-approved and Queen-endorsed red. “As the new colour did not soil easily, and was therefore less expensive than lighter tints, the fashion of puce gowns was adopted by the bourgeoisie, and dyers were unable to meet the pressing requirements of their customers,” explains The History of Fashion in France. Soon, both men and women were wearing trendy puce-colored taffetas and satins (or sending their old rags out to be dyed anew). “But the color was not always exactly the same shade, so they made a difference between old and young flea, and then made subdivisions, and you could see clothes the color of the flea’s ‘back’, ‘head,’ or ‘thigh’,” adds historian Augustin Challamel. But the muddy, bloody red went out of fashion as quickly as it blew in. Legend has it that, on another occasion just months following his puce ejaculation, Louis XVI saw his wife in a fab new gray gown and said something along the lines of, “That dress is the color of your hair!”

Portrait of Marie Antoinette painted in 1785 for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun – Private collection, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

(According to a collection of anonymous letters from the time period—exhaustingly titled Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la République des Lettres en France depuis 1762 jusqu’à nos jours or “Secret Memoirs Serving as a History of the Republic of Letters in France from 1762 until Our Days”—“queen’s hair” replaced puce immediately as the It color: “From that moment, puce was out of fashion, and valets were despatched from Fontainebleau to Paris to procure velvet, ratteen, and cloth, of that colour…”)

Puce may have faded from prominence, but even the most abstract of things, once publicly named and identified, continues to exist in some way or another. While it may seem odd that the rather crudely named insect-inspired color became so quickly coveted, there was already a conceptual link between fleas and desire. In John Donne’s “The Flea” (published in 1633), the poet uses parasitic insects as a metaphor for fucking, and as a way to pressure his beloved into doing so. “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, / And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; / Though know’st that this cannot be said / A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,” he writes, and that’s just the first stanza. Donne goes on to get chastise this poor girl for killing the flea after arguing that she should just “yield” to him.

In a 2009 article on puce in Cabinet magazine, Barry Sanders makes a strong argument that fleas have a murderous side, as well as an “outlandishly sexual” one:

The flea took on its sexual identiy from a string of suggestive cognates with puce, like pucelle, ‘maiden’ (and in certain contexts, ‘slut’); pucelage, ‘maidenhead’; and depuceler, ‘to deflower.’ In addition, the French eroticize the fla in a popular phrase since the fourteenth century, ‘avoir la puce a l’oreille’ (‘to have a flea in one’s ear,’ meaning that one harbors a libidinous urge, ‘a sexual itch.’ Say the word puce today and a Frenchman will either titter or offer a knowing wink.

I do not know whether Frenchmen still react this way, but there are others who desire puce. According to numerous antiquing bloggers, “bottle-diggers” lust after puce-toned glass relics, which can fetch a high price on eBay or at antique fairs, with the “puce eagle” bottle being particularly popular. (Question: Would you watch a Detectorist-style television series about bottle-diggers set in the American Midwest? I would.) In the past few decades, puce has become one of those cocktail party tidbits of knowledge that gets passed around, showing up randomly in movie dialogue for no other purpose than to showcase the writer’s encyclopedic intelligence/justify their art history minor. Puce gets shout-outs in Monsters Inc., Santa Claus: The Movie, and Fright Night. It’s also mentioned in Ulysses, but I think perhaps James Joyce was thinking of the other puce—the wrong puce—since Buck Mulligan says they want “puce gloves” to match his “green boots”. (The wrong puce is pea soup green and it seems to be a visual malapropism of British origins, and frankly, I think this green-puce is bullshit and should be ignored like the Johnny-come-lately it is.)

Unfortunately for those of us who desire exactitude while hypocritically chaffing under its rigors, puce is still somewhat of an unsettled color. You can find many different puces in the paint color and hex code worlds. Sometimes puce veers closer to mauve, while others it appears downright brown (and occasionally it appears as a pale boy belly-flop pink). Pantone’s puce is a particular disappointment. It lacks the gutsiness of some of the other tones; it’s a matte brown that is neither earthy and warm nor layered and intriguing. Personally, I think we should bring back the original French naming system for these varieties of puce. Flea-thigh, flea-belly, flea-back, new-flea, old-flea, dead-flea, live-flea—each one with its own tint and tone. There is a squalidness to this naming system that appeals to my messier tendencies, and an intuitive precision to it that is reminiscent of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. It would fit well next to his more corporeal colors—Veinous Blood Red, Gallstone Yellow, and Liver Brown. The slim volume is mainly filled with lovingly named colors (inspired by nature and his paint box in equal measures), yet every now and then, a bodily function sneaks in. Peach blossom red, rose red, and then: arterial blood red. And that is the story of puce—amidst such beauty, such repulsion.

 

Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in Maine with her two dogs and one husband.