True Blue: DuPont and the Color Revolution

Detail, “Save the Surface” campaign advertisement, The Literary Digest, 11 February 1928. Courtesy of Regina

Detail, “Save the Surface” campaign advertisement, The Literary Digest, 11 February 1928. Courtesy of Regina

Why True Blue Mattered

The story of DuPont and the color revolution reveals much about the inner workings of the fashion system during the modern era. DuPont discovered there was nothing easy about the business of fashion. Men in the paint trade found it tough to pin down the feisty and fickle female consumer. In the end DuPont followed the textile trade, which, like other batch-production industries, had perfected a system of consumer mediation. The growing chemical behemoth even adopted the Munsell color system most favored in the industrial arts.

As DuPont standardized the Duco palette, the company helped to establish new ground rules for design innovation in consumer durables. By the mid-1930s Duco color choices embodied tastes in the great imagined middle ground—the mass market—while allowing for deviation. Blue appealed to conservatives, but the nation’s George Babbitts came in many different stripes. Besides True Blue there were hundreds of other blues, all geared toward the range of middlebrow tastes. This selection allowed middle-class consumers to signal differences among themselves.

The proliferation of forecasting systems gets to the crux of the matter. There was no one best way to predict color appeal precisely, because there was no single taste or single category of products. Yet whether in textiles or automobiles, palettes as a whole had mass appeal, and individual colors had a tad of distinctiveness. Each was designed to work with a specific line of products. A woman might wear a suit in Elsa Schiaparelli’s Shocking Pink for decades, but a Fire Red car got tiresome pretty soon. Exact copies of couture colors looked strange on fenders, doors, and upholstery. Men like Towle and Ketcham explained why. When industrial colorists spoke, corporations listened, and by the mid-1930s color experts had a toehold in American business culture.

Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Ph.D., is a historian based in Philadelphia. This article draws on research for a new book, The Color Revolution, funded by CHF’s Edelstein Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for 2007–2008. Learn more about her work at www.imaginingconsumers.com.