Remember that famously awkward scene in The Devil Wears Prada? The one where titan of publishing and all around fashion bully Miranda Priestly schools newbie Andy Sacks in the trend provenance of her blue sweater?
"It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns… Which then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. It’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry.”
While the scene neatly encapsulates how much money and power is tied to color trends, for today’s audiences, it can be hard to believe that a media-savvy intern such as Andy could be so green about color stories. Especially now that colors have their own hashtags. Think #MillennialPink, which has steadily trended on Google search since its peak in April 2017, and #UltraViolet, Pantone’s 2018 color of the year. In today's social media, SEO-infused landscape where content is king and brands vie for readers’ attention, never has there been so much trend literacy. And in the scroll of online life, never has brands’ desire to seduce eyeballs with swathes of zeitgeist-y colors been more prevalent.
It is hardly surprising then that 2017 and 2018’s mainstream protests should wield color with all the savviness of a major brand. Where the words “American protest” might once evoke iconic photos of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, today, they bring to mind modern-day color stories. In January 2017 (and again this year), bright fuchsia pink filled the streets of American cities as the shade became the color of choice for pussy hats. In December, women of Britain took to the street in London wearing red to petition parliament for better access to menstrual products for low-income people with periods. And earlier this month, women in Hollywood took to the red carpet at the Golden Globes wearing black to draw attention to sexual harassment.
That’s not to say that communicating through color is anything newly revolutionary — Hillary Clinton wore white pantsuits at pivotal moments during the 2016 election (and to Donald Trump's inauguration) to reference suffragists' use of white in protest. And during the 1960s, protestors of the Vietnam War wore black armbands. But as powerful as red carpet statements can be, when wearing a particular color becomes an act of defiance, it is hard not to question whether real, substantive action is being muted by an obsession with how good a protest should look. By lending mainstream protest marketability through color, are we not simply minimizing our power and sacrificing our voices at the altar of commercial glossiness?
For journalist, design researcher and The Secret Lives of Color author Kassia St. Clair, color does however have its place. Namely by allowing activists to rewrite cultural assumptions and re-appropriate the visuals of the powerful for themselves. Consider the history of protest and it reveals itself to be threaded with colors that have been reclaimed and redefined. Case in point: At the dawn of the 20th century when American and British suffragists created their flag, they did so using the color purple, in western culture the color of royalty, royal insignia, flags and ceremonial robes. Physically expensive as a dye, it had been long been restricted to those with either money or social status. Yet within the hands of the suffragists, the luxe purple of the establishment became a mirror for the democratic hopes and aspirations of an enfranchised new age.
Years later, early gay rights campaigners turned tried-and-true associations with purple upside down yet again. Fast-forward to 2017 and the bright, full-blooded pink of the pussy hat has reimagined the sexy 1950s fuchsia of Marilyn Monroe’s gown in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for a more empowered time. “In normal circumstances women are often pushed into the background. So, depending on how you own it, bold color within a very male-dominated space can be very empowering because you are making yourself more visible and taking up more space.” St Clair states.
Meanwhile, for the women who wore black to the Golden Globes, it was the somber business-like black of men’s eveningwear which was co-opted. “Usually on the red carpet, you see women wearing bright colors like they are tropical birds or flowers, as if the clothes are wearing them. That wasn’t the case with black and the Time’s Up Movement. I think the funereal character of the black dress reminds us how sad it is that women’s careers, not just in Hollywood, but elsewhere, have been killed," she states. “It’s really very hard to argue with a very visible group of people when they are all dressed alike and displaying a strong group identity. Because while black is still freighted with the fashion connotations of the little black dress, it is also linked to powerful notions of modernity. There can be a real lack of vanity and an important sense seriousness associated with black. Plus, there’s a strain of violence when you consider how fascists and anarchists have used it."
Her tip for negotiating today’s color-consciousness? With red’s association to the dangerous “scarlet woman” and yellow’s history of signposting warning, both shades are ripe for feminist re-appropriation.
top photo: Instagram/Time's Up
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Brit abroad, full-time Francophile and flapper wannabe Rachel Huber is a writer, translator and content strategist now based in California. Her favorite food is the Proustian Madeleine. You can follow her on Instagram @rachuber.