Unsettling Color

The past couple of fashion seasons, I’ve noticed the trend of pairing neutrals or murky tertiaries with a slice (or in some daring examples, a chunk) of neon, usually orange, magenta, or electric blue. Though it’s absolutely surprising– some might even say shocking– this is not actually a new, 21st century invention. Many think of the Victorian era as swathed in somber black (thanks to Queen Victoria’s permanent state of mourning for her beloved Alfred), but it was during this period that synthetic dyes were invented (mauvine, or “mauve” was the first), and people went color crazy, pairing wildly contrasting colors together in a riot of mismatching patterns.

Jil Sander, S2011

This is clearly evidenced in fashion and also interior design of the mid-late 19th century, as in the vivid wallpaper and upholstery prints of William Morris and C.F.A. Voysey, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Jil Sander’s recent collection in color combination:

CFA Voysey "Mistletoe" wallpaper

This muted taupe dress would not be nearly as striking if it weren’t paired with fluorescent sandals:

Preen, S2009 collection

And it seems to me it’s not so far off from the upholstery of the Moorish Smoking Room in the Worsham-Rockefeller House, circa 1881, which pairs subdued charcoal with an almost identical flaming orange:

Moorish Smoking Room, The Worsham-Rockefeller House, c 1881

The strip of psychedelic tangerine on Prada’s soles is certainly jarring and seems terribly cutting edge…

Prada shoes, Spring 2011

 

 

as it was way back in 1948 when Barnett Newman made his very first “zip” painting, Onement I, a gloriously imperfect stripe of vivid orange that cleaves the mottled maroon and makes each color seem brighter and more muted, respectively, for being put in such close proximity:

 

Barnett Newman, Onement I, 1948

 

 

Also featured in MoMA’s excellent exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York, Hans Hofmann’s Memoria in Aeternum similarly punctuates muted, kinda pukey tones with crisp, sunny orange and yellow rectangles:

 

Hans Hofmann, Memoria in Aeternum, 1962

 

 

Baly’s ensembles reflected some of this one, complete with rectangle motif. Again, it’s the juxtaposition with a muted neutral that gives real oomph to already bright colors, lending them a truly futuristic, glowing appearance:

 

Bali, color blocks, Spring 2011

 

 

The color theorist Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) influenced the Abstract Expressionists with his awesomely fun and interesting book Interaction of Color (1963), as well as his own paintings. Interested in how the perception of colors change when adjacent to other colors, he favored simple shapes– usually squares– to demonstrate this point (if you click on the image below, the red practically pulses):

Josef ALBERS, Homage to the square- on an early sky, 1964

You get a similar feeling of being unsettled if you look too long at this outfit, yes?:

Costume National, Spring 2011

Albers and the Abstract Expressionists transitioned into the psychedelic colors of the 1960s, facilitated by the next generation of bright dyes. Emilio Pucci (1914 – 1992) revolutionized popular fashion with his flamboyantly vibrant prints and high contrast paletes. Margaret Walch and Augustine Hope note in their marvelous book Living Colors: The Definitive Guide to Color Palettes Through the Ages (which, my roommates will remember, I used to fall asleep on the couch with), “To capture some of the explosive energy of a Lichtenstein or Warhol canvas, pinks were swirled alongside ocher yellows, blues were combined with browns, and greens with corals.” Again, fashion and art intersected. The example below is actually more geometric and less trippy/swirly than most Pucci’s, but there is that vivid tangerine again, surrounded by floating blocks of earthier tones:

Pucci dress, late 1960s

I have to say, when I saw the proliferation of these oranges coming down so many runways last season, I was not a fan. But staring at them for long periods of time practically hypnotizes you– not only do I see similar examples everywhere I look these days (films, paintings, posters, etc.), they’re actually growing on me…! The question I still have, I suppose, is: what drives these artists / designers to embrace what many would agree is, at least for the first moment, an eyesore, something that unsettles, that shocks, that somehow seems wrong? The follow-up question would be: what attracts simple consumers to the same?

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2 Comments

  • Jenna March 02, 2011 03.18 pm

    Thanks for this article! I have been awake a few nights since fashion week commenced wondering if I have the courage or the complexion to adopt fierce orange into my wardrobe…

     
  • Anastasia March 06, 2011 02.13 pm

    Well, it shows that fashion and art aren’t as far apart as people like to believe. The use of things that unsettle the observer, yet draw your interest, is a skill which has been used for centuries in the art world; it’s only in the last century that the same option is available for costume and fashion. Contrast creates reaction/action, gives life to that which is not alive.

     

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