Catholic school-girl plaids. Indestructible hotel carpets. A zillion university emblems. Wherever one finds a dreary bureaucracy, making weak swipes at respectability, the same color palette emerges over and over. Whether you call the burgundy color maroon or—for the literary-minded or sartorially inclined—cordovan or oxblood, this brick-red shade has somehow come to epitomize officialdom. But why?
Burgundy: A Choice
Some color mysteries crack easily upon research; others resist yielding their secrets. I must confess burgundy/maroon’s origin story has me thoroughly stumped—which is itself intriguing. The color wraps so many official surfaces, it’s almost become invisible. And yet, a designer choosing burgundy for a color palette is making a charged claim—or rather, shying forcibly away from making such a claim. Burgundy is unassailable in its propriety, inarguable to those who fear color’s mercurial charms. How we got here is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in maroon-colored, crunchy bacon.
Let’s start with a plausible theory: overuse. Red is perhaps the classic heavy-rotation color, allied inextricably as it is with blood and everything blood connotes: love, passion, valor, meat. The sunny uncomplicated reds of candy hardly exist in nature; organic reds run much more towards a gamut of reds tinged with bronze, blue or black. While it runs violently fluid, blood is red; but it darkens instantly to brownish-red, perhaps directly into rich brown earth with its many variations of shade. Blood, earth, nature: what themes are more resonant of patria, courage, nationhood, the highest values of valor?
Wine and Dirt
The term “burgundy” specifically refers to one of the biggest wine-producing regions of France, a spot of land rich with tangled vineyards and squabbled over bloodily for centuries. The original tribes of Germanic Burgundians give the color its name today. In reaching and reaching again for these universals, burgundy has gotten more than a little tarnished by overuse—and fatigued, conservative, even defensive as a result. When Pantone chose this color—which they dubbed Marsala—its 2015 Color of the Year, it screamed retrenchment, groundedness, conservatism.
Or we could advance a more pragmatic theory: dirt-proofing. I recall a particular industrial carpet covering the dining room floor in a retirement home where I worked as a waiter as a teenager. A bewildering mix of paisleys with similar blobs, its chief color was a burgundy with faded yellow and teal whorls. Vaguely I recall gold braiding as part of the supposedly regal motif. Its imperviousness to soiling was legion. You could grind bright-yellow mustard into its paisley swirls, or explode an entire tiny capsule of dairy creamer onto its nubbly surface. A few well-placed twists of your boot heel, and the carpet would magically absorb your dastardly work. (We were in high school, so believe me: we killed many hours doing this.)
Catholic-school uniforms are another provenance where burgundy, improbably, rules. As a liturgical color, red dominates cardinal wear (and the famously crimson Pope’s shoes). It symbolizes all the unsurprising things you might readily guess: Christ’s blood shed for humanity’s sake, the Holy Spirit (a sort of animus running through all church members, binding them into a community). It’s pretty un-arguable to good Catholics why you’d choose to clothe your students in a muted version of the blood of Christ. You can’t pick a loftier, more correct symbol to aspire to.
But why muted? That’s the rub, really—and here’s where dirt-proofing likely kicks in. as the reason. The plaids in kelly-green, navy-blue or burgundy favored in school uniforms worldwide are dirt-proof in the extreme. Flattering to no one, they’re equalizing as intended. Also, it’s exhausting to wear blood-red every single day. Momentary passions get tempered for everyday use – muted, backgrounded, rendered symbolically reverent while graciously ignorable.
Or maybe it’s the plaid that makes all these burgundies an invisibly officious blur. I went looking online for burgundy uniforms, school or otherwise, and found quite a few rakish alternatives —like these Indian schoolgirls above or Tibetan monks below. With its warm-yellow undertones, burgundy favors the non-European portion of the world’s complexions—that is to say, the vast majority of people.
Despite everything we know about color, it still stubbornly contains secrets. And that’s exactly why I find the topic fascinating. The “true” facts of color symbolism are grounded in reality, but equally dependent on cultural connotations, folklore, popular theories, and everyday uses accreting around the shade. Burgundy has become official, and every new appropriation of the color affirms that use. Why? We can only guess.