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In troubling times, pink is hot hue again

Reprinted at Fashion Worlds June 2004 with permission The Mercury News, San Jose

By Joyce Gemperlein

I'm a ``True Honey-Toned Spring,'' as decreed by a woman named Ruth who, in 1987 for $35, eyeballed my hair, eyes and complexion and handed me a two-inch-thick fan of fabric swatches marked ``personal color palette.'' The deck of cards -- I have it still -- is heavy on aquas, blues, soft yellows, cool pinks and corals.

Which was really a happy coincidence, because at about that time, the stock market tanked and, almost exactly two years earlier, Palestinian terrorists had hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.

Right now there's a similar situation: We're reeling over revelations about the mistreatment of detainees in Abu Ghurayb prison as violence intensifies in Iraq, and two years ago we were still counting the dead from the Sept. 11 attacks. So, wouldn't you know it: Pink is everywhere, even in business suits for women, transforming the aisles of department stores from seas of gray to gardens of color. Pinks are ruling the fashion industry, and orange and apricot hues are creeping in beside them to color fall fashions.

Do you see something of a pattern here? Horrible things occur, and then, two years later, when we're glum over one grim situation or another, lo and behold, we're dressing in Pepto-Bismol or cotton-candy pinks and Cinderella blues as if we didn't have a care in the world!

It's axiomatic that when the world is at its cruelest, fashion turns to frills, innocence and caprice. But it's somewhat spooky to find out that the industry believes that it knows at least two years ahead of time that the world will be messy enough for us to want to dress like Barbie.

Color prognosticators

To hear more about this contention, I telephoned Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association of the United States, one of several organizations that determine what colors will be in vogue. She described a process for selecting color palettes for fashion and other industries that is intriguing, sometimes contradictory, and even a little creepy.

``Fashion and color are barometers of the times; therefore they are always reflective of what is going on in the world,'' explained Walch, who said she was wearing a tawny yellow suit over a vintage Mickey Mouse T-shirt as she chatted from her New York City office. You'd think, then, that the color seers would put us in blacks, grays and browns -- time-honored colors of mourning and depression in Western tradition -- but that's not the case, Walch said.

``What is going on right now in color is pretty logical. We have a real wish for soft, comforting colors in stressful times to make ourselves feel better. Between the weather, the economy and the war, people are freaked out. We have no answers, and problems are being generated constantly. We want color that flies in the face of reality,'' added Walch.

You hardly need a newspaper to know, then, that the world's in bad shape. Just look around: Clothes, hair bands, breast-cancer ribbons and even shoes are pink and other rosy shades. The latest issue of the J. Jill women's clothing catalog contains approximately 55 pink items in its 100 pages. Even men are increasingly wearing shirts and ties ranging from fuchsia to pale pink, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. Actress Jennifer Lopez caused a run on pastel diamonds when she held her pink rock (from former fiance Ben Affleck) up to a TV camera.

There's even a pink KitchenAid mixer and a coffee mill (part of the company's participation in a breast-cancer fundraising effort).

Paradigm shift

What has the world come to? Time was when women wore shoulder pads and feminized traditionally male business suits to show that they were as solid and dependable as men, that they faced the world head-on. Pink was as much a no-no in the office as was crying at your desk -- even if you did so in pure anger. And those flouncy skirts that are all the rage now? Women wouldn't have been caught dead in those in the 1980s.

Now women are being told -- what? That they are confident enough to wear whatever color and ruffles that they like? Or is it that they've given up the fight to be looked upon as equals?

Meredith Wood of Knoxville, Tenn., past president of the Color Marketing Group, another color prognosticator, described 2004's shades as ``spa'' colors that promote peace and tranquillity. They're girly, childlike tints that foster people's need to ``be pretty and innocent, to go back to a time when we felt safer and more secure,'' she said, adding that ``we are in such a fragile state right now!''

Back in 2002, the color analysts seemed to know that we'd still be a mess around about now. President Bush was warning about the ``axis of evil'' and a drawn-out war against terror. So they predicted the current, diverting palette of cheery pinks, oranges and marine colors. It was in all the best fashion magazines, but can you believe that world leaders clearly ignored this early warning of events to come? They did nothing to improve things so that, at the very least, you and I would not be scrambling to buy a pink Gap jacket on eBay because it sold out so quickly in stores.

Sure, Walch and Wood concede that some other factors figure into what colors we wear. For example, we don't always have control over our color options.

Other trend factors

Before the world wars, the fashion industry didn't stray beyond Paris. During World War I, our supply of dyes was cut off, resulting in a drab fashion scene. In addition, fabric, hosiery and buttons were regulated, which led to utilitarian clothing.

The ``red carpet'' effect of movie stars' frocks on Oscar night can't be discounted. (Consider Gwyneth Paltrow's pink gown in 1999.) And there's no disputing that color palettes cycle in and out and that decades can be lumped into categories.

You can think of the 21st century so far as being dominated by a spectrum of rich-but-muted colors -- for example a range of oranges, pinks and greens -- rather than merely one color; the 1990s as being a decade of khaki clothing until shots of color appeared as the economy heated up; the 1980s largely as the black, confident computer decade; the 1970s as the earth-tone era bespeaking an environmental focus; and the 1960s as a brightly colored, flower-child era. (And also one that wanted to divert emotions away from the bloody Vietnam War.)

But ``to be honest, the way the colors are chosen is intuitive, it is as if they are pulling things from the air,'' Walch explained about those who analyze colors. A good forecaster uses world events, psychology, sociology and other factors to set a palette.

``It can get kind of eerie, in that oftentimes a forecast anticipates an event,'' said Walch. Here is her example: The forecast produced by her group for spring 2003 had a red-white-and-blue cover and, inside, were similar colors and a nautical and patriotic theme. It was published in May 2001, only four months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent Afghan and Iraqi wars.

``It anticipated very strong events,'' said Walch, who has been in the color industry almost 30 years. ``It was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen.''

Jean Dilworth, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who lectures on the sociology of clothing, noted that Sept. 11 had a great impact on fashion's use of red, white and blue. ``We haven't seen this much of it in clothing since World War II.''

Interestingly, pink had a great impact in the 1950s, right after that red, white and blue period in the 1940s.

Color analysts are just now coming out with their predictions for 2006. The good news is that colors are clear ones, rather than muddy or murky, and becoming a bit more vivid. Historically, they say this has tended to mean that the economy is recovering.

But the bad news is that it appears that we will be dressing in ``fairy-like'' or ``escapist'' colors even more as we approach 2006, said Walch.

Self-fulfilling prophecy?

But wait just a minute.

Isn't the fact that color analysts set the palette two years ahead of time and manufacturers churn out all manner of like-colored goods a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy? Consumers can only buy what is offered.

``Absolutely not,'' said Wood.Consumers will walk away from the colors if they don't feel they are right for the times, she insisted.

Oh, please, chided Dilworth. Of course there's an inevitability that consumers will buy what is there -- and not buy what is not. ``I think we mostly buy clothes that we like in colors that we haven't seen for a while,'' Dilworth said. She noted she was in her university office wearing a new, lively striped cowboy-style shirt the likes of which she hadn't seen since the 1970s. Some of the stripes are pink, but she didn't buy it ``because I'm depressed about Iraq. I just like how it goes with my khakis.''

``Besides, she added, `I don't look that good in pink.''

And let's remember a recent miscalculation: Clothing makers were poised to roll out ``Middle East chic'' just at the time of the fall 2001 terrorist attacks. The plans were shelved.

Still, if Walch is even partly right about the fortunetelling capability of her cohorts, I can only think that this means the world is going to feel like one of those unrelentingly depressing episodes from the television show ``24,'' in which one bad thing happens, then a worse bad thing occurs, and then an even more extremely bad thing takes place. I'm not sure I want to be here for that, even if I am wearing a lovely shade of rose.

And although the color industry's sense of its importance may be a bit out of joint, shouldn't the Department of Homeland Security, Alan Greenspan, and the Pentagon, for planning purposes, be subscribing to Women's Wear Daily? Just in case?

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