“The dress which I found waiting for me was of a peculiar shade of blue. It was of excellent material, a sort of beige, but it bore unmistakable signs of having been worn before.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, “Copper Beeches”
This isn’t one of my favourite Holmes stories, but it is rightly famous both for Holmes’ tart assessment of the countryside as a hotbed of crime and also for this amazing multi-coloured dress. How can a dress be both blue and beige? It’s almost as if the great man had predicted Dressgate from 2015 – the correct answer to which was, of course, “who cares whether it’s blue/black or white/gold; couldn’t she have found a nicer one?”
Fear not, dear reader, as a little research and a decent dictionary have solved this little conundrum and in so doing has offered an insight into how the English language evolves over time.
At the time he was writing “Copper Beeches”, Conan Doyle – and his readers – would have known that beige wasn’t a colour at all. It was a fine woollen cloth sold undyed and unbleached for dressmaking and manufacture. As it was such a fine cloth, it was also quite expensive, and over time, people who couldn’t afford it would often ask for a cheaper cloth “the colour of beige”. Unsurprisingly, over time “beige” became better known as a bland neutral colour and completely forgotten as the fine cloth it was originally.
So it is quite possible for the dress in this story to be both beige and blue – just as long as we remember that in the late 19th century, beige wasn’t what we think it is now.