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The Colours of Our Memories



The Colours of Our Memories

Michel Pastoureau

ISBN: 978-0-745-65571-0 August 2012 Polity 240 Pages

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What remains of the colours of our childhood? What are our memories of a blue rabbit, a red dress, a yellow bike? Were they really those colours? And later on, what colours do we associate with our student years, our first loves, our adult life? How does colour leave its mark on memory? How does it stimulate memory? How does it transform it? Or, to reverse that question, how does colour become the victim of memory's whims and lapses?

In an attempt to reply to these questions - and to many others - Michel Pastoureau presents us with a journal about colours that covers over half a century (1950-2010). Through personal memories, notes taken on the spot, uninhibited comments, scholarly digressions and the remarks of a professional historian, this book retraces the recent history of colours in France and Europe. Among the fields of observation that are covered or evoked are the vocabulary and data of language, fashion and clothing, everyday objects and practices, emblems and flags, sport, literature, painting, museums and the history of art.

This text - playful, poetic, nostalgic - records the life of both the author and his contemporaries. We live in a world increasingly bursting with colour, in which colour remains a focus for memory, a source of delight and, most of all, an invitation to dream.

Colour. An aide-mémoire


In the beginning was yellow

Turbulent stripes

The navy-blue blazer

Subversive trousers

A particular blue

From the garment to the myth

Colour against flesh

Neutral shades in good taste

Mitterand beige

Slimming colours

In the London Underground


My mother's pharmacy

The sad tale of young Philippe


Choosing a colour: an impossible undertaking?


Metro tickets

Red or blue?

Traffic lights

Colour and design: a missed chance?

Eating colours


In a painter's studio

A painter caught between two volumes

In darkened halls



The Red and the Black

Chrétien de Troyes at the cinema

Pink pigs and black pigs

When Dalí assigned marks

The colours of a great painter

Historians without colours

The workings of time


Goals and referees

The yellow bike

Bartali and the Italian flag

The Tour de l'Ouest

Colour by default

Easy colours and difficult ones

Pink and orange


Little Red Ridinghood

Long live school Latin

My discovery of heraldry

The black cat

Green superstitions

The colour of destiny

Furling the colours

A historical object that is alarming

Playing chess

Wittgenstein and heraldic colours


An American gift

Sunbathing through the years

The 'bling' of the 1950s

A brief history of gold

A mysterious shade of green

Do you see red clearly?

No purple for children

The whims of memory

Preferences and opinion polls


Brown and beige

Spelling and grammar

A day at the races

The zero degree of colour

A part that stands for the whole

The Greek blue

The demise of nuances

Speaking of colours without showing them

What is colour?



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"In this lovely memoir, Pastoureau shares some of the colour associations that signposted his childhood and young adulthood. Embracing the belief that our identities depend on the memories we accumulate, Pastoureau elegantly shows how memories themselves are shaped by colour."
Times Higher Education

"The ubiquity of colour in modern society blinds us to its cultural significance. In his dazzling new book - a kaleidoscopic mix of historical research and personal memoir - Michel Pastoureau brilliantly reflects on what colour means, and what colours mean, from the underwear drawer to the TV screen."
Jonathon Keats, author of Virtual Words and Forged

"In this book the distinguished medievalist Michel Pastoureau uses his memoirs to frame reflections on a variety of historical topics that include the history of jeans, the history of signalling and the language of colour in ancient Greece. The author carries his learning lightly and writes with fluency, grace and humour."
Peter Burke, University of Cambridge

"A wonderful book made up of personal memories, those of a generation born after the war, of notes taken at the time and of scholarly explanations. Thanks to Michel Pastoureau and to the generosity of his erudition and clarity of his analyses, our life suddenly seems much richer."

"This unusual autobiographical reflection is consistent with Michel Pastoureau’s reputation as a leading historian of colours.  Here he draws readers into his distinctive way of thinking about the role that colours play in our memory, showing how our memories open up new fields of research: one rediscovers the objects of everyday life and of mass consumption, the cinema, literature and art, not to mention his cherished theme of heraldry. Through these reflections the reader retraces the history of colours and their theorization in the West. This book is a delight and it will awaken in readers a new curiosity about the world around them."
Etudes: Revue de Culture Contemporaine

"the writing is informative, often amusing, and delightfully readable."
Australian Journal of Politics and History