What’s your favorite color? What hues make you feel energized, tranquil, optimistic, elegant? Have you ever pored over paint chips at Kelly Moore and wondered who dreams up names like Cozy Cover, Copper Beach, Taffy Crunch, Swiss Coffee, and how much they get paid for doing this? Is there any doubt in your mind that at a traditional wedding the bride wears white, and you should not show up in black? What color is your envy as the neighbors leave for a tour of Tuscany as you wave from your ladder while painting the exterior of your house Stonegate taupe in the August sun? Is there a color for your mood at the end of a week of Maui surf and sunsets as you fly home to face a pile of bills and morning roll call at the office? Would you wear your green pants and red sweater to a party after the month of December has passed? What color were your “gills” on the fishing boat in the Bay? And when you realized what the dog did to your fine Italian leather shoes, what color did you “see”?
A single color (pink vs. blue on a baby announcement) or color combo (orange and black in the fall) communicates unmistakable meaning via our culture and conditioning. Color is a form of language: it evokes reaction, creates mood, and expresses experience. This is true all over the world, but what is evoked or expressed by the color yellow to a German might seem as foreign to us Americans as their word for the color itself: gelb. While most countries in the West (U.S., Canada, and Western Europe) associate yellow with optimism, warmth, and good cheer (as well as cowardice!), Italians, Germans, and French are turning yellow with envy alongside our American green. In Egypt and Burma it is a color of mourning, and for the Cherokee nation yellow is a symbol of conflict and strife.
In Western countries, white is the color of purity, peace, safety and health, and let’s not forget that good guys used to wear white ten-gallon hats and ride white horses (Hi-Ho Silver, away!), though heroes of the 21st century mostly prefer the power and intimidation of black. Food is perceived to taste better and be fresher and healthier if served on a white plate. The bride’s dress and flowers are white and so is the frosting on the wedding cake. But as we go east, while white will still suggest peace and purity, it begins to speak a very different language of sadness and mourning. In China, Japan, Korea and other eastern countries, white is the color of death and funerals. In India it is traditionally the only color a widow is allowed to wear.
Red is a bold color that can suggest excitement, passion, danger, love, anger, and Stop! Studies show that sports teams wearing red gain a competitive advantage and that the color actually makes people stronger during competition. Western countries have red light districts of prostitution and sex paraphernalia shops, however if we paint the town red we might wake up hungover, but probably just had a night of good clean fun. In the East, red denotes good fortune, prosperity, and festivity. It’s the color worn by brides in China and India, but in South Africa it’s the color of mourning. Superstition compels Spanish bull fighters to shun yellow, green, and purple, but to wear hot pink stockings for good luck. As for the matador’s red cape, all cattle are color blind and the bull will charge anything that is waved in its face.
America has exported the blues worldwide and while the color can stand for depression and sadness, it also communicates calm, trust, and authority. In the West, it’s a masculine color (and most men’s favorite); in China, it’s a feminine color. And on the subject of color and the sexes, although it’s almost impossible to imagine anything but pale pink for little girls and powder blue for baby boys, it was just the opposite in Belgium until recent decades. In many countries blue is the color for pornography, as in the now almost archaic American reference to blue movies. (In Italy those racy movies are red.) Another bygone American expression “to turn the air blue” meant to swear up a storm. What people used to call blue jokes, we now just call “off color” or “dirty”. But in Spanish, it’s the color green that suggests risqué behavior, so a dirty old man is a viejo verde. In Australia, if the couple next door is having a blue, they’re having a fight; and he made a blue is he made a mistake.
American financial institutions inspire trust, suggest strength, and promise success with logos of blue. The bright red of Coca Cola’s signature and Target’s bull’s eye suggests excitement, youth, and energy. In America, orange is a cautionary color (think road hazards) as well as one of good cheer, confidence, and approachability (Nickelodeon, Gulf Oil, and Hooters). Orange doesn’t give a hooter about trying to be subtle or sophisticated. It’s the preferred color for fast food joints and discount retailers (McDonald’s, Burger King and Payless anything). Just as McD’s customizes its menu to offer McLobster rolls in New England, McZpacho chilled tomato soup in Spain, and McKastsu sandwiches in Japan, the mega-retailer also adjusts its website and color strategy for specific areas of its world-wide market. While staying heavy on the red/orange/yellow color scheme, there’s a celestial blue background for most of the Middle East (virtue and protection), and a green one for Europe (luck, health, and environmental awareness). In Holland, orange is the color of the royal family (House of Orange) and whenever the Dutch are vying for the World Cup, the entire country drapes its farm houses and gabled buildings in bright orange fabric. There will even be an occasional sighting of orange cows. When the big fluffy marigolds bloom in Mexico, orange speaks of death as people celebrate el Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) in early November.
While Americans go green with envy, the French are green with fear. With hair standing on end, an Italian will be blue with fear, but green with rage. In U.S print and publishing, the color yellow alerts one to sensationalist journalism rife with scandal and exaggeration. In Italian publishing, a “yellow”, un giallo, is a detective thriller. A “white night” is a sleepless one in French, Italian, Spanish and other Romance languages.
In my high school sewing class, Sister Mary Harrold rhapsodized about the existence of 500 different shades of black. We were unimpressed because that’s the only color she ever got to wear, and we were just kids in uniforms dying to sport anything but the requisite forest green plaid skirts and crisp white blouses. Sources say there could be a hundred thousand shades of blue and that the possible shades of green are infinite. Only fifty shades of gray? How unimaginatively dull in a world full of colors and the foreign languages they speak.