Originally published in STIR®



The story behind our national hues of red, white and blue.

The fall colors were hard to miss this season. Not the yellows and oranges of autumn leaves. Rather, the avalanche of red, white and blue screaming for voters’ attention.

When the election season was in full swing, our national hues were all around us – saturating lawn signs, mailers and TV ads. The patriotic combo of red, white and blue may be a political cliché, but it remains the color scheme of choice for 80 percent of all campaigns.

This year’s presidential race unfolded predictably, colorwise, with both tickets branded by variations on the color trio. For Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the look was blue letters on a white background, with a red-, white- and blue-striped “R.” For Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden, it was a blue “O” resembling a stylized sun rising over a red striped farm field.

The colors were especially heavy with meaning on election night, when we watched election returns come in to find out which states “went red” (Republican) or “went blue” (Democratic). As we know, blue reigned supreme, with Barack Obama declared the victor. But colors also loom large in our political life 365 days a year.

Take politicians’ neckwear, which is analyzed and discussed even when they aren’t in the middle of a campaign. In 2008, 50 days into Obama’s presidency, the Huffington Post did an inventory of his ties to find out which colors he favored. His favorite hue? Democratic blue, which he wore 42.5 percent of the time. But red, the color associated with Republicans, came in second at 30 percent.

And Romney? His ties break the party mold, according to Smart Politics, a political analysis blog from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. During the primary season, Romney wore a blue tie in 17 of 18 presidential debates, or 94 percent of the time, although Republican governors, in general, are three times as likely to choose a red tie over a blue tie. But when he accepted his nomination at the Republican National Convention, Romney was back in the red.

Paul Ryan may be known for his conservative views, but he isn’t conservative when choosing tie colors, according to the Huffington Post, which assembled a gallery of his colorful neckwear. (Ryan favors brights and pastels, and appears especially fond of yellow.)

Then there’s Joe Biden, whose iridescent tie during the 2012 State of the Union address was so mind-blowingly psychedelic that it inspired its own YouTube videos.

The roots of red, white and blue

Where did our national palette come from? And what do these hues symbolize? The Continental Congress left no record to explain why it chose the three colors that Philadelphia upholsterer Betsy Ross sewed into the first Stars and Stripes in 1776.

But just a few years later, in 1782, when those same three colors were chosen for the Great Seal of the United States, their meaning was described as white for purity and innocence; red for valor and hardiness; and blue for vigilance, perseverance and justice.

The U.S. isn’t the only country with a red, white and blue flag. There are at least 30 nations, representing every continent, that use them, too. No one seems to know why those colors are such a popular combination for flags, although one guess is that red and blue were two of the easiest colors to achieve with natural dyes.

Designing with red, white and blue

All-American colors remain a popular design choice across the country. The color combo has a crisp, nautical air that translates well in a wide variety of spaces.

Houzz, a popular online resource for remodeling and design, offers up 3,160 variations on red, white and blue palettes, with room photos and Sherwin-Williams color suggestions.

Coastal Living suggests an aquatic take on the palette. If you’re lucky enough to have ocean or lake views, let the water replace the blue, and set it off with a jaunty red-and-white interior.

And now that the election is over, it’s time for the holidays. Houzz suggests a patriotic red, white and blue Christmas tree, with silver adding a bit of sparkle.