What’s licorice and bisque

and jalapeno all over?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

L INQUISTS DESCRIBE LANGUAGE AS A SYSTEM OF arbitrary symbols agreed upon by convention within a culture. They explain that there is nothing intrinsically red about the word red. Rather, red is simply an agreed-upon label for a particular color. If everyone liked the idea, we could call that same color rouge, rojo, yoghurt, grandma, or even blue.

Indeed, in popular English usage we seem to he doing something along those lines: the names for colors are rapidly increasing in variety. For a long time many of us were able to get by with mostly just the primary (red, yellow, and blue) and then secondary (orange, green, and purple) colors, plus a few (very few) others such as white (not really a color at all, of course), black, brown, and pink. When we wanted to make finer distinctions, we tended either to use hyphenated words—blue -green, for example, and green-blue (anyone who has owned a box of sixty-four Crayola crayons will remember that the two are different)—or to add a modifier: olive-green, shocking pink, light blue. In the dictionaries, to be sure, there are scores of arcane words expressing evcry conceivable gradation of color, but these are mainly the province of technicians in various fields.

Gradually, however, popular discourse has begun to show its colors. The fuchsias, the mauves, the ecrus, the magentas—these once-exotic species and some incre-asingly bizarre relations (tangelo? safari, sachet?) are now commonplace. The primary and secondary colors are still with us, of course, but their offspring and the names given to them have gone forth and multiplied.

T HEY HAVE VISIBLY FILLED THE CATALOGUES OF MAIL-ORDERcatalogues of mail-order clothiers such as J . Crew, Lands’ End, Tweeds, and Smvthe & Co. The rugby shirts and Bermuda shorts and crew socks and chambray jackets all seem to be shown in colors that one can recall having seen in childhood, although those colors admittedly appear in many more shadings than before. But the swatches of color that appear next to each item of clothing bear unfamiliar names. Instead of beige, for example, the catalogues give us sand. Instead of brown, they give us hide. Instead of purple, poison. Why say maroon when you can say varsity , oxblood, or radfrnhio? Who needs white when you can have bisque, or black when you can have licorice, or pink when you can have sorhet, or yellow and red when you can have citron and jalapeno?

According to Sidney Mashhurn, the menswear designer at J. Crew, some of the names of J. Crew’s colors are chosen to avoid confusion. J. Crew’s record-keeping abbreviates all colors to three letters, Mashburn explains. “If there’s a T-shirt in blue, red, green, and grey, it becomes a conflict in abbreviation, g-r-e green and g-r-e grey. Consequently we rename one of the colors. For example, green could become hunter o r kilt.” Mashburn says that J. Crew prefers this solution to abandoning the decidedly British spelling grey in favor of the American gray. “Using kilt,” Mashburn says, may seem obscure. It is used only after we have six or seven other greens in our palette. Similarly, harbor, lake, and gulf are some of our options for blue.

All in all, J. Crew and Smvthe use at least ten bodies of water, including medit-erranean and nile, to describe shades of blue or green. But the Smvthc catalogue more typically tends toward the agricultural, preferring such terms as spinach, lawn, chives, and kelp to green.

The new designations are sometimes a little confusing. On a single page in the Smythe catalogue, for example, solid-color sweaters come in lentil, banana, yam, and boysenberry, while striped and floral shorts come in plain old red, blue, and navy. Peacock is bluish-jade in Smythe; in Lands’ End it is green. In the J. Crew catalogue coral is orange when it’s the color of a T-shirt but pink when it’s the color of a sweater. Tweeds offers a blouse in, among other colors, desert and sand.What could the difference possibly be? The saud color swatch in the Tweedscatalogue turns out to be the traditional beige that most people think of, whiledesert turns out to be an orange-peach. “We were thinking more along the lines of Painted Desert when we picked desert than along the lines of Sahara Desert,” says the president of Tweeds, Jeffrey Aschkenes. “Sahara is what we meant when we said sand.”

What lies behind the proliferation of color on our designers’ palettes? Aschkenes has one answer: “We believe these colors emulate the life-styles, attitudes, and taste levels of our customers.” Homer, in The Iliad, had something else to say when he described the allure of one of Aphrodite’s many-colored garments: “In it was love and in it desire and in it the blandishing persuasion which steals the mind even of the wise.

                                                             John Rosenthal and Marilyn Rosenthal



July, 1990. (Pgs. 18..- 20)

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