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The relationship between color, fashion and commerce has developed significantly over the past century. In her new book “The Color Revolution”, award-winning historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk explains this, highlighting the psychology and processes involved between color and consumer culture. Published last month, “The Color Revolution” focuses on the innovation that occurred between 1850 and 1970, an era that saw the emergence of ‘color stylists’ or ‘color forecasters’.

To mark her recent book release, Blaszczyk is to lead a conversation with fashion designers Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra on Tuesday 25th September at the Warner Bros. Theater, National Museum of American History. Costello and Tagliapietra will share their knowledge about color technologies and in particular the use of AirDye, a product that incorporates environmentally friendly methods into the textile-dyeing process.

Here we talk to Blaszczyk and find out more about the inspiration behind “The Color Revolution”…

Color-Revolution1.jpg“The Color Revolution”
Photo credit: Imaginingconsumers.com

Q1. From where did the idea for your new book “The Color Revolution” originate?

Color has always fascinated me. Years ago, when I worked as a studio artist in college, I did a series of clay artworks that used bold, contrasting colors. “The Interaction of Color” by Josef Albers of Bauhaus fame was the assigned reading in my color seminar, and his modernist theories influenced my thinking. Even after I gave up studio work, color stuck with me.

The light bulb went off years later when I was working as a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I was at the Library of Congress, looking through old issues of Fortune magazine, and in the first issue (Feb. 1930), I ran across an article called “Color in Industry.” Focusing on the American scene, the editors commented on the endless stream of colorful consumer products that hit the market in the 1920s. Fortune gave a wonderful name to this phenomenon: “the color revolution.”

I began to ask, “What was revolutionary about the color revolution?” Many hours and many archives later, the answer emerged in the form of my book, “The Color Revolution”.

Q2. Do you think that readers will be aware of the historical relationship between color and the fashion industry?

Over the years, I talked to quite a few design and fashion professionals about my color book. Most of them seem unaware that color has a history that goes beyond the story of natural vs. synthetic dyes, or a list of “what colors were popular when.” Designers work with color chips and color cards every day, but nobody stops to think about when standardized colors were invented, or how and why color forecasting came to be part of the creative industries.

The really fun part of my research was discovering a wonderful cast of characters–the living, breathing people–who worked behind the scenes in industry and commerce to colorize the world in the 1800s and 1900s. The book tells the story of inventors like William Henry Perkin, the teenaged London chemist who figured out how to synthesize the color mauve, and of the French, British and American fashionistas who made it popular. It also tells the story of the American fashion industry’s first color forecaster, Margaret Hayden Rorke, who managed the trade organization that later became the Color Association of the United States (CAUS).

Mrs. Rorke adapted the French sample card to the unique circumstances of the US mass market from the 1920s to the 1950s. She created a color of color standards that identified the “basic” colors that were best for the American market, and issued forecasts of fashionable colors that would most likely suit American tastes in the upcoming season. Mrs. Rorke never wore Prada and she wasn’t very devilish, but she selected the new hues long before Meryl Streep played Miranda Priestly.

Color-Revolution2.jpgA car with a polychrome paint job
Photo credit: Buick ad from May 1928

Q3. How significant is the influence that color has on commerce?

There is a lot of talk in contemporary circles about themes like “design thinking” and “design management“. My book shows that these ideas have been around for more than a century.

Here are a few examples:

Color management was part of big businesses like General Motors from the 1920s onward. GM was set up to collect statistical data on consumer color preferences from the dealers. The colorists on staff used these statistics to report on “where color had been” and to predict “where color was going to go.” The book tells the story of the GM colorist H. Ledyard Towle, an artist who worked as a camoufleur during World War I and then used his skills in visual manipulation in Detroit. Captain Towle worked alongside the more famous Harley J. Earl in the Art and Color Section at GM. Today, Towle has been forgotten, but back in the 1920s, everyone in Detroit knew he was the guy who could paint cars to make them look slimmer and sexier. Colorful paint jobs appealed to women, who often selected the family car on the showroom floor. So, color was linked to mass consumer society in Detroit as far back as the 1920s.

After World War II, color consultants like Faber Birren crafted successful careers by helping all types of businesses to understand how color increases sales. Birren’s clients included House and Garden, an upscale shelter magazine published by Condé Nast in New York. Birren created the House and Garden Color Program, which licensed a seasonal palette to manufacturers and retailers who wanted to coordinate colors across merchandise categories. The famous 1970s appliance colors—Avocado Green, Sunset Gold, and Sienna Brown—were part of the House and Garden palette. The idea of the “ensemble” – appliances in matching colors – was borrowed from the textile and fashion industry, where Margaret Rorke had promoted it back in the 1920s.

Q4. What strikes you as the most pivotal point in color forecasting over the past century?

The key moment in color forecasting came during World War I and the 1920s. During the war, American manufacturers in the textile, millinery, garment, and leather industries made a conscious effort to break away from Paris and set their own color trends. The American color revolution of the 1920s evolved in tandem with European modernism, but it was rooted in a totally different set of economic conditions and social circumstances. Color became a successful sales tool in the US during the 1920s because the US was the largest and most prosperous country in the world. A red dishpan from Macy’s or a Chevrolet lacquered in bright blue were symbols of the middle class lifestyle. American consumers had the aspirations, and American industry used new chemical technologies and color marketing to satisfy those longings. In the 1920s, science and technology met aspiration and longing; color was the linchpin. This was the moment that Fortune described as “revolutionary”.

Color-Revolution3.jpg1916 catalog supplement, containing swatches in the pale wartime hues as an aid to color selection

Q5. Finally, is there a bright future for the color profession within modern global corporations?

Color management changed with the rise of the global economy after the 1970s. There’s actually less variety in fashion colors today than there was 100 years ago, when local shops and department stores still ruled the roost and competed for customers by offering more unique merchandise. Think of the small family-run boutiques of Paris, and you’ll get a sense of the variety that existed before the rise of international chains such as H&M and UNIQLO.

Historians don’t ordinarily predict the future, but we can offer some educated observations based on what has happened in the past.

The digital age has made information instantaneously accessible, and this could eventually erode the role of color forecasting. Margaret Hayden Rorke received color reports on the Paris openings from her Paris agents via overnight cable, and waited ten days for the steam ship to arrive with fabric swatches. She then rushed to get those reports off to her subscribers on Seventh Avenue. Today, everyone can see what’s happened on the Paris runway right away. There is less of a need for predictions when information is so readily available.

By contrast, there will always be a place in the design professions for color standards. Global corporations like Nike and Disney employ colorists to determine which colors will work best in different markets around the world, and to select those colors from pre-set standards. More than ever, color is an important part of the brand. And more than ever, it is the existence of color standards that ensure that your black Maytag dishwasher will match your black enameled Kenmore stove. Color standards, it seems, are here to stay.

Color-Revolution-Image-4.jpgHow You Can Do Your Own Color Planning with Sears Harmony House “Go-Together” Colors (Chicago, 1955)

Evidently, the historical value of the color industry has paved the way for substantial future growth in this area, from corporate companies to couture. With the influx of digital technology, “The Color Revolution” outlines the ongoing yet changeable relevance of color engineers and their work, providing the reader with an enthralling journey.

“The Color Revolution” by Regina Lee Blaszczyk is part of Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation published by The MIT Press. A book signing also follows the program. For more information about this event click HERE.