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Agatha Christie and the Color Puce

What color is puce?

I haven’t read or heard the word “puce” in ages—possibly not since childhood, when children’s books were full of orphans dressed in hand-me-downs that were some drab color—if not brown, then gray, or…puce! I feel sure I bothered to look up the exacting meaning; it was so obviously an ugly color, just from the sound of it. Phew! with an “s” at the end.

Then again I may well have first encountered the word in Agatha Christie’s 1972 mystery, Elephants Can Remember, which I just unearthed and am happily rereading. The book opens with mystery writer Ariadne Oliver considering a hat to wear to a luncheon. The hat she chooses is a “kind of turban of various layers of contrasting velvets, all of rather becoming pastel shades which would go with anything.”

I can’t for the life of me imagine how such a hat could go with anything at all. Anyway. The main point is, she pairs the turban with a wool dress “of a delicate puce color.”

There it is. Puce. A color that apparently can be “delicate” or—presumably—vibrant. And might (though my faith in Mrs. Oliver’s taste is now shaky) go with a number of other colors. Mrs. Oliver mentions the colors in her hat —green, blue, red and chocolate brown (Why Mrs. Oliver calls the latter two pastels is beyond me.) There is no way to guess, based on this welter of info, what color this wool dress is.

I look it up, and it turns out there is some disagreement on what color puce actually is.

Grayish pink? Light green? Maroons brown? All these shades pop up online as puce. And that’s not all. It’s “dark purple brown,” or a “brownish purple,” asserts that eminent source, the OED, which obviously has two constituencies to please, those on the side of purple, and those who insist on brown. This is one strange, and let’s face it, ugly, set of possibilities.

Who would set off such a debate? The French may have that dubious honor. Puce is the word for “flea” in French. That’s right: Puce literally means flea-colored.

Oh, the French and their love of fleas! They use “puce” as a term of endearment, such as calling a child “mon petit puce” (my darling little flea). “Flea market” is a literal translation from the French for a market that sells second-hand goods likely to be flea-infested. Personal hygiene being low on the list of priorities in past centuries (even until recent decades, some may argue), I’d wager that the French have a long, intimate history with fleas.

A historical novelist named Catherine Delors avers that France’s King Louis XVI—the one who met his end at the guillotine in 1793, along with his infamous wife, Marie Antoinette—coined “puce” to describe the color of one of his wife’s favorite gowns. On her blog Versailles and More, Delors has a picture of a scrap of this gown, put up for auction at Christie’s a number of years ago. It looks to be a light brown, what I would call the color of dark honey; banal, as royal colors go, and certainly not dark purple brown. Had it perhaps faded or gone through some sort of change over the course of two hundred-odd years? (This question may not have bothered the buyer of the scrap, who paid $76,000 for it, according to Delors.)

Can a flea be a variety of colors? A site called fleabites101.com says there are about 2,000 different kinds of fleas around the world, so maybe so—though this source says they are brown or reddish brown and doesn’t elaborate. I have to admit that I’ve been lucky enough never to have seen a flea up close. On another site, I found pics of a cat with fleas—and believe it or not, they were light brown. Louis XVI might’ve been a connoisseur of cat fleas.
Still the question lingers: What is the color of Mrs. Oliver’s wool dress in Elephants Can Remember? If only Agatha were still alive. What was puce to Agatha Christie in the early 1970s?

If we start with the assumption that Agatha has given Mrs. Oliver a modicum of taste—the unfortunate turban aside—green might be the color: a pale green, not quite pea but close. Louis’ brown might work, too. It’s probably not dark purple brown, but it could be a lavender with a hint of beige. Pink is out, unless Mrs. Oliver were one of those women who liked pairing red and pink.

Oh, well. There’s no way to know. Agatha has unthinkingly created a small unsolved mystery. The only conclusion about puce I can make is what I knew at the start—it’s probably hideous. Except one: The one true essence of puce, we can say, is it’s a Vomitous might be another word for it. Might Marie Antoinette have kept her head had she not been fond of puce?

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2 thoughts on “Agatha Christie and the Color Puce

  1. Puce. How can a word so unbecoming possibly represent a color anyone would willingly wear?

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