Colour: are we free to choose?

I’ve been wondering recently about the big gap between what fashion and magazines tell us is popular and what we actually instinctively like.  For instance, when people see the bright colours of my dyed wool blankets their faces light up, they make their way across crowded gangways at craft fairs and ooh and ahh very happily.  Even people who aren’t shopping let their hands drift across the textures, and smile. 

But aren’t we meant to like beige?  Aren’t we meant to have neutral interiors and grey-toned cushions?  There are endless interiors articles with comments like “Clarissa has teamed ivory and chalk for a neutral feel”, although the photographers have usually been allowed a red vase or a child’s bright toy to save their sanity.  Occasionally there is a throwaway sentence about adding ‘pops of colour’, as though that’s your ration and no-one should ask for more.

But I think the tide is about to turn.  Not just because I think beige is boring, but reflecting on the past for a moment, there are definitely seasons in these things.  A lot of our so-called fashions are based on economic conditions, the boom and bust cycles of the past few decades.  So, you get austerity in the 1940s with dark utility colours, followed by bright pastels in the 1950s as rationing finally lifted.  You get dreary greens and browns during the recessions in the 1970s (avocado bath suite anyone?), followed by the harsh 1980s colours of the then new technologies (think Rubik’s Cube or the Apple logo). 

And we have just had over ten years of austerity after the 2008 credit crunch, we are due some bright colours.  We have had over ten years of dreary pale living rooms, ‘neutral palettes’, and don’t-rock-the-boat ‘timeless’ white kitchens.  The nearest we’ve been allowed to a colour recently has been Millennium Pink, that ubiquitous blush colour that used to be the shade of Grandma’s knickers. You can just about discern occasional navy-blue feature walls in some room shots, but psychologists would tell us blue is calming and represents trustworthiness, so maybe that’s what we are seeking in today’s unsettled times. 

Away from interiors, the pressure in fashion to change colours each season goes to the opposite extreme and becomes almost feverish.  If a celebrity wears a certain colour, or the catwalks all show another, that’s it, we’ve all got to like it.  And, by and large, we do.  Because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, the designers convince the shops, they then stock it, and we choose from what we are given.  Sometimes we stand firm, for instance Pantone said the colour of the year 2014 was lilac, and shops unexpectedly ended up with lots of unsold garments. We are just not that stupid.  Knicker pink, yes; lilac, don’t be silly.

This year Pantone have announced the colour of the year is Living Coral.  Which is a very vivid shade, quite cheerful and warm, should be popular one would think.  But the drivel they explain it with is another story.  Apparently, it is “sociable and spirited, …it welcomes and encourages light-hearted activity”.  It is also “animating and life-affirming”, “humanising and heartening”.  That’s asking a lot from a colour, however bright.  Perhaps next year’s colour will be Total Rhubarb?

Colour has long been a way of getting us to shop more, we love something new, something fresh, something different.  The novelty of a certain colour, usually a contrast to the previous season, makes us welcome the change.  The opposite can be true as well, some things sell more because they haven’t changed, for instance Tiffany’s light turquoise boxes are based on Napoleon’s wife’s favourite colour from 1837, and Cadbury’s chocolate is notably wrapped in purple because that was Queen Victoria’s preferred choice. 

Either way it’s about shopping.  Spending.  Helping the economy, as some of us like to see it.  But is it really about us choosing for ourselves?  And do we need to make more of an effort to think about what we actually like, rather than what is fed to us so that someone else can make money?