COLOURS OF S&M : O’s Regency Yellow – a Two Way Traffic of “Vice & Sin”

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Yellow is the colour of Regency fashion and décor, ‘Regency’ being the period at the beginning of the 19th century when the British developed a swagger in their dress as a result of having at last beaten the French. Somehow, thereafter, we exported the colour to France. The French editions of Histoire d’O come in the brightest of yellows. Rare first editions from 1954, with their now slightly faded yellow paper covers, are still to be found among the book-stalls of Paris, and sometimes sell at considerable prices on the internet.

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Jonquil, or ‘daffodil’ yellow, was THE colour of the 1801 season as jonquil was everywhere. Both the primrose colours, ‘primrose’ and ‘evening primrose’, were popular during the whole Regency period, and the height of fashion 1807-1817.

The Regency era in Great Britain was a period when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son ruled as his proxy as Prince Regent. On the death of George III in 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV. The Regency era ended in 1837 when Queen Victoria succeeded William IV.

The Regency period saw society considerably stratified. In many ways there was a dark side to the beauty and fashion in England at this time. In the dingier, less affluent areas of London, thievery, womanizing, gambling, the existence of slum-house prostitution and constant drinking ran rampant.

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Later in the 19th century yellow would colour the whole Decadent period when the swagger of the ‘dandy’ hinted at vice and sin,  and when the likes of Swinburne and Oscar Wilde exploited their enthusiasm for Baudelaire, Flaubert, de Sade and Gautier (the ‘dandy’ flourished on both sides of the English Channel).

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The Decadent period, now often referred to as the “Yellow Nineties”, owed much, in fact, to France. Wicked and exotic French novels bound in yellow had become the vogue in London for a decade. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, Dorian Gray’s education in vice is helped along by a “poisonous book” in a yellow cover. One reviewer described Wilde’s novel as “a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Décadents.”Blogger JD Ellevsen states, “During the Victorian era, two kinds of books were commonly presented in yellow dust jackets: sensation novels (The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, etc.) and—horror of horrors—French fiction.”

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When in 1894 writer Henry Harland, artist Aubrey Beardsley, and publisher John Lane, were casting around for a title for their new (and as it turned out, short-lived) monthly journal that has come down to us as the decade’s “most glamorous monument”, the title chosen was The Yellow Book. From this the decade took its name.

Rather tame by today’s standards The Yellow Book championed the cause of new talents as a quarterly review, self conscious of excellence in yellow board covers with thick paper and wide margins. The splendid cover illustrations for the first four volumes were the work of Aubrey Beardsley, who along with Wilde perhaps epitomizes the whole period. It was almost solely Beardsley’s contribution which gave The Yellow Book its ‘decadent’ reputation, the result of which was a storm of moral outrage.

Sadly Beardsley’s association with The Yellow Book was brief. When Oscar Wilde was arrested on a criminal charge of committing indecent acts, several newspapers seized the opportunity to concoct the headline; “arrest of Oscar Wilde, Yellow Book under arm”. Shortly afterwards John Lane bowed to public pressure and dismissed Beardsley from his post as art editor.

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Not surprisingly the tradition of the yellow paper book-cover continued in France. Also not surprisingly, writer Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury) furnishes Sir Stephen’s Paris apartment in her novel Story of O, (a home-from-home on the rue de Poiters) with a touch of Regency yellow thus;

[the room] furthest from the entry was the largest and the most restful, furnished in dark English mahogany and pale silks, striped yellow and grey.”

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The tradition of the yellow book-cover saw its last flowering in the UK during the 1960s and early 1970s. Who can forget, once discovered, the distinctive yellow and illustrated covers of the popular Luxor Press and similar UK publishers, boasting such tempting titles as Venus In Furs, Slaves to Sin, The Story of Corporal Punishment, Flagellation, Nell in Bridewell, and The Age of Perversion? Make mine a yellow book!

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© S. Prince (www.storyofo.info)
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