Why is it that, in those last dreary days of winter, people are almost choking with the longing for spring? Sure sunshine and warmth play a part, and the desire to shed all those cumbersome layers of clothing that seemed so cozy last September, but I think a huge part of this ache is the fundamental longing for color. The clouds and the chill clear away, and suddenly we see everything in a new light. Everything is brighter, more vibrant. The grass gets green again—how could we have forgotten the glory of freshly growing grass sparkling after a good downpour?—and the early bulbs come up in the most vivid yellows and violets. It's as if nature knows exactly what we've been craving, for she's literally raining on us from the bright blue sky the medicine that revives our spirits. There's no doubt that color plays a huge part in how we feel, behave, and react. No doubt, indeed, that through the use of color, marketers of all kinds exploit or celebrate, depending on your viewpoint, our natural desire for a change of seasons.
The seasons I speak of don't necessarily have to be related to nature's cycles. We go through seasons in our society of unrest, discouragement, anxiety or anticipation. We want our surroundings, our clothing, and the ads we respond to, to soothe or augment our shared consciousness. A color is a powerful tool. Little do many people know, in fact, that as the season's change, as they sit in a restaurant, drive by a billboard, or flip through a catalog, that they are responding not only to words and images but also to carefully chosen hues. When we abruptly decide our suddenly drab wardrobe needs a good dose of orange—and not just any orange, but that rich, sunset orange—are we really acting on our own whims, or are we responding to subtle marketing? Out of the blue, it seems, the perfect bag to go with the perfect new orange dress, and the perfect matching shoes, seem to shimmer into our consciousness… from every store display and magazine page. Truly, if we donned all at once all the sunset-orange merchandise now available to us, we'd be smitten by the style gods and cast into the fiery lake where all fashion sinners dwell. But at least we'd blend in nicely. Now how does it happen that, while thinking we are so original, we unconsciously become sheep to the newly-minted colors of the season?
One is reminded of a brilliant speech in The Devil Wear Prada by Meryl Streep's character Miranda Priestly. The diabolic fashion editor forces an uncomfortable epiphany upon her supposedly free-thinking new assistant Andrea: We are all, whether aware or not, deeply affected by the trickle-down effect of marketing—in relation to color as well as everything else.
"This… 'stuff'? Oh… ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff."
One possible account for this somewhat eerie subliminal-color-marketing phenomenon is that "a fish don't know it's wet." Since the Industrial Revolution, with the mass-marketing of goods and textiles and the importance of ads and packaging, predicting color trends and employing color in marketing has become of tremendous consequence. It's simply our way of life. Immediately as infants and children, we are subjected to the psychology of color. Nursery patterns and colors are now calculated to please the eye and soothe the spirits of the newborn; and children's shows, even before they can be understood from a language standpoint, are designed to enchant with the universal language of color in dazzling blues, reds, and yellows—designed, perhaps, to hypnotize little ones so parents can take a shower or do the dishes.
Whatever our age, class or beliefs, colors spark myriad emotions: calm, discomfort, exhilaration… and emotion is an essential device to the advertiser. Wal-Mart, ever desirous of communicating practicality, communicates mostly with simple, welcoming blue. Target, on the other hand, wishing to convey a little more edge and hipness opts for vivid red—everywhere. Though both companies have valid viewpoints (and though Target remains my personal favorite), it seems, based on the successes of each company in recent years, that in this economic climate people are more apt to gravitate towards Wal-Mart's soothing, cobalt safe haven of low prices to satisfy basic needs. It appears that we experience enough nervous energy picking up and budgeting for our essentials as it is, without adding slightly higher prices and the buzz of red and white graphics bombarding us in every aisle. What was fun when we had economic security has become merely uncomfortable to our throbbing financial nerves in recent years.
Despite an atmosphere of greater good sense, we nonetheless need to go just a little crazy with color at the moment. According to executive director for Color Marketing Group (CMG) Jaime Stephens, in a discussion of the color trends in store for 2009,
"We're finding comfort in colors that are familiar, and yet at the same time, we're embracing colors that make us happy—especially as accents."
If we were dipping our toe into playful color in 2009, prudently keeping the cream-colored couch and simply tossing on a few statement-making throw pillows, one wonders how much longer we'll want to fight the temptation to dive right in. Though muted grays, mauves, and blues are still to be found just about everywhere, even our neutrals are getting a little more fearless this spring. Black and white are the new black, and capricious denim is turning up in everything from pearl necklaces to tennis shoes. What's more, the renewed embrace of the 80's, with the decade's wacky color, texture, and the pattern seems to suggest the fashion world at least is itching to take the careless plunge. Perhaps we too are ready to take a deep breath, let go of what we can't control, and splash into fresh optimism and bold color.