The season’s first frost always comes too soon, a precipitous reminder of the fleeting nature of the most beautiful time of year. The loveliness of fall, crisp air, generous harvest, and ripe explosion of russet, auburn and gold, sets the stage for a burst of organic inspiration. We took a cue from the harmony of the autumnal palette and put together a brief, albeit informative, color story on the season’s most prominent hue.
All the colors of the rainbow have had their histories extensively explored and minutely charted; yet the color brown has remained largely undisturbed by the scope of chromology. The problem may lie in this very manner of classification, for brown is not found in the rainbow, or more importantly, on the color wheel. Nor does it fall on the range of neutrals between black and white. Furthermore, its classification is exceptionally expansive, from khaki to mahogany and everything in between. Certainly, its denigration is not a consequence of unfamiliarity in nature. Some non-western societies have more willingly accepted brown into their culture. It is worn in India in reverence to the Hindu deity Vishnu, and in Iraq, it represents the color of mourning. Perhaps, in the West, its quiet status in fashion can be traced back to its humble beginnings.
In the Middle Ages, brown was designated to the dress of the lower classes. Russet, a dark brown color with a reddish-orange tinge, derives its name from a fabric made of wool and dyed with woad and madder. The cloth was coarse, hard-wearing and cheap, and worn by the poorest segment of the population. In an era where dyes were limited by both expense and availability, the range of browns was the only recourse for variety, as indicated by a number of amusing names, now linguistically obsolete, including abraham (a dark brown), tawny (a dusky brown-orange), and puke (a dirty brown).
In an effort to combat the opulence of the Catholic Church, followers of the Protestant Revolution dressed in “honest” colors – blacks, grays, blues and browns. The Church itself had long ago tapped into the color’s ability to signify humility and devotion; the robes of Franciscan monks are some of the most powerful sartorial symbols of the color brown. Simultaneously, however, brown shades were often the color of the most luxurious trimmings of the Renaissance: sable, minx and fox. Fur was employed not just for warmth, but to project an image of power and authority. This dichotomy in the implementation of brown in dress, piety and opulence, is present throughout its history in the medium.
In 1856, scientist William Perkins accidentally stumbled upon the world’s first synthetic dye (mauveine) and suddenly, natural hues seemed dowdy and dated. The fashion landscape was peppered with bright vitriolic shades that complimented the complex shapes and heavy trims of the Victorian era. The new spoony styles spattering from the couture houses of Paris seemed distasteful to the intellectual and artistic circles of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. As evidenced in the paintings of Lady Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, the Artistic and Aesthetic movement of dress preferred simplicity of design, materials and the muted colors of natural dyes. As most subversive styles of dress do, they would eventually seep into the mainstream through the influential work of clever avant-garde designers (in this case the early 20th century designs of Fortuny and Paul Poiret).
The two World Wars produced eras of provisions and shortages, and austere dress was patriotically lauded the very pinnacle of fashion. A nice russet tone provided an alternative to the sea of black and navy. World events would continue to shape brown’s identity, as Germany’s associations with the color would connote a sinister tone during the war years. Both Bismarck brown and Prussian brown are listed as official colors in the Dictionary of Colours. Furthermore, in the 1920s, brown was adopted as the official uniform color of the Nazi party.
Two years out of the war, Christian Dior’s New Look introduced an era of sophisticated dress marked by feminine curves and elegant lines. Neutral shades were particularly suited to the new look, and brown was no exception. In 1949, Vogue declared, “Brown is summer news, and mark our words, it will be autumn news too”. New shades were invented and creatively named; a 1947 show at Bergdorf Goodman introduced a shade of cocoa called Balenciago (possibly in homage to the great couturier). Two reviews from the early 1950’s highlight the prominence of brown in the lady’s collections from Paris from the early years of the decade. “Miss Alice Burrows, fashion coordinator of The Eaton Co., Ltd., New York office stated, ‘deep-toned neutrals, such as dark grays, browns and blues, were nominated for color leadership, with the brown tones ranging from beige and taupe to dark brown as particularly strong’ “. (NYT, June 21 1951) Again, the following year, “A concise and complete report on the Paris collections was offered by Mrs. Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, at yesterday’s meeting of the Fashion Group, Inc. at the Astor Hotel… The importance of blacks, browns and grays was underscored, with the browns particularly stressed.” (NYT, September 24 1952) As seen in the work of photographer John Rawlings, the sophisticated air of the period’s dress was seamlessly complimented by the rich tonality of chocolates, chestnuts and brunets.
The perfectly coifed lady wrapped in brown mink and clutching pearls provided the ideal foil for the youth movement of the next decade. Acidic tones dominated color palettes, but by the end of the decade, earth tones seep back into the zeitgeist.From Vogue, 1967: “Get yourself a brown dress this summer; it’s the Ford of the season, everybody’s friend in fashion… The dress that goes everywhere. It can be your own – the dress that puts you at your ease and on the ball. The dress that shows your skin your prettiest way. The dress that you don’t have to do things to… you add some corals at your throat and eliminate everything else. Or you add a shiny white raincoat and tie up your head in a purple scarf. Or a bright yellow cardigan. Or you bang on a big straw planter’s had, put bar red sandals on your feet… and go to town in brown.” (Vogue, April 1, 1967) Fresh off a vacation in Marrakech, Yves Saint Laurent showed two collections in 1968 that further propel change in chromatic preference. The first featured his iconic safari jackets. The second, inspired by the Parisian student rebellion, featured fringed leather and pantsuits and was painted in “musty, dusty despondent colors”. (NYT, Nov 26, 1970) The decade of ultra suede and maxi dresses catered to the strength of the color’s sensibility.
The vast range of brown’s many shades has shown a remarkable adaptability to the cultural amalgamation of any era; it lent itself just as well to the affluent preppy aesthetic of the 1980s as to the minimalism of the 1990s. It is an easy color, complimenting many skin tones, allowing the wearer’s own beauty to take center stage. And yet, for all its unassuming nature, brown is as capable at conjuring emotion as any other color: umber for modesty, chocolate for luxury, sepia for nostalgia. As ever the true power of the color lies in its intricate psychology, as rich as any tone with a proper place on the color wheel.