Avoiding the navy blue blues

Navy blue moodboard

It is something of a truism that in the UK where school uniforms are very much the norm, many of us wince at the memory of being forced to wear the same colour, day in, day out. This discomfort was exacerbated if the colour of our uniform happened not to be one that suited us – as most often seems to have been the case. Burgundy, bottle green, purple, grey, black and – of course – navy blue – these are the typical colours adopted by many schools. They are colours which remain instantly identifiable to anyone who spent their formative years clothed in them.

Navy blue school uniform
Navy blue school uniform

It’s no coincidence that navy blue is so prevalent in school uniforms. “Bluecoat schools’ date back to the 16th century when students at the Christ’s Hospital school wore blue coats – a custom adopted by other schools as time went on. Blue was chosen as it was the cheapest dye available at the time – derived from the leaves of the woad plant, grown in the UK. Here at ClothSpot we’re not far away from centres of woad production in Lincolnshire where it was a commonly-grown crop. Road names, images and artefacts document its production and processing which continued up to the 1930s even after indigo dye became more widely available.

Woad powder - used for navy blue
Woad powder

‘Navy’ blue acquired its name as it was used for navy uniforms in many countries although in recent decades it has been replaced by black, the dyes for which are less susceptible to fading.

All of which may be interesting – but it doesn’t exactly provide much in the way of inspiration for fashion design. In fact it only goes to illustrate the aversion which one of the ClothSpot team has had towards the colour until recently. This despite the well-chronicled penchant for navy blue on the part of many a designer. Chanel famously preferred a sober palette for many of her designs – including navy blue – to emphasise a more masculine, unadorned silhouette in contrast to other styles prevalent in the early 20th century. More recently Jean Muir was a great exponent of the use of navy blue in dressmaking (as she preferred to call fashion design).

Navy blue evening dress by Jean Muir
Navy blue evening dress by Jean Muir V&A Museum

As observed by Imogen Fox in the Guardian a year or two back however, navy blue has begun to replace black in the wardrobe of many a fashion pack member. With simpler dark and neutral colour-blocked shapes showing up in collections (think Celine, Victoria Beckham…) navy blue is having something of a revival. We’ve had many a discussion with fashion students, designers and suppliers as well as our customers over the last few years where people have stated a preference for exploring navy blue as a means of breaking away from ‘incessant’ black as it’s often described. This season we’re even seeing a fascination with ‘double denim’, such is the current liking for indigo in all its shades.

Stella McCartney navy blue denim SS15
Stella McCartney’s ‘double denim’ SS15

What’s the problem then, with navy blue? We think it comes back in part to the school uniform-based aversion. As well as, we suggest, a lack of understanding about which blue might suit you best. We keep reading ‘there’s a navy blue for everyone – it’s just a case of finding which one’. Finding and identifying your ‘right one’ can be difficult. Capturing differing shades of navy blue in images or text can be difficult. Here at ClothSpot we frequently observe the difficulty of photographing navy blues with accuracy. Add to that the confusion with names – ‘midnight blue’, ‘Oxford blue’, ‘French navy’, ‘ultramarine’, ‘Prussian blue’ – and so on. Here, we consider it our business to familiarise ourselves with those names and what they mean – but we find ourselves having to check, compare and re-check. Then we have to bear in mind that everyone will have a subjective opinion of what each term might signify for them.

Navy blue Christophe Lemaire SS15
Christophe Lemaire SS15

One solution is to know where in the colour spectrum ‘your’ navy blue sits – and to look out for the blues in that area. Your navy blue might lean towards grey, marine green, deep, almost-black navy blues – know yours and seek it out. Have a play in your local clothes shops with a friend and compare your navy blues. For our part, in our fabric descriptions we’ll always try to be explicit about a shade of navy blue – or any other colour for that matter.

For the record, our ClothSpot colleague who suffered a classic navy blue school uniform (and hides the photos that evidence her discomfort) has discovered that grey-leaning navy blues are her thing – and she’s now happily cultivating a collection of garments around that shade.

Of course – no-one is suggesting that navy blue should be worn exclusively (even Miss Muir mixed it up a little). Our moodboard shows how you can contrast and complement across the colour spectrum – and not just with white. So – have a riffle through our collection of blues, find your favourite navy blues and have a play. You might surprise yourself.

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