Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.
When I was a teenager, my mother warned me to avoid lipsticks with an orange undertone—it brought out the yellow in my teeth, she said. This season, I discarded my mom’s advice and hunted through three different cosmetics counters looking for a tube of Nars “Heat Wave” lipstick. The high-waisted jeans I’d seen in the same color didn’t suit me. The silk tanks I’d found in that hue felt like a frivolous expense. But I wanted—no, needed—my lips to look like a fiery neon sunset. I thought it would be the perfect addition to my own unique sense of style.
It wasn’t until I found the shade sold out in three corners of Los Angeles that I realized my coveted lipstick’s scarcity was not indicative of my unique fashion sensibility—quite the opposite. Heat Wave is so hard to come by because it’s really “Tangerine Tango,” the “official color of 2012” —at least, according to Pantone, the “world-renowned authority of color.”
When Pantone favors a color, the physical world follows suit. Pantone’s trend forecasting process can decide the hue of the ball gown a designer sends down the runway and the color of the accent walls painted by interior designers around the country. It affects the color of the season’s magazines and the flowers that turn up in spring vases. No doubt Nars based its shade directly off of it, as did J. Crew for this season’s perfect Jenna's Cardigan (which has long been sold out). Why Tangerine Tango? Because a round of very adroit individuals gathered in a colorless room in an undisclosed European capital and decided it was so.
Slate’s Tom Vanderbilt recently offered a rare look inside Pantone’s biannual color forecasting meeting, which brings together colorists from around the world—many of them remain anonymous—to discuss the “direction” of color over the next 12 months and decide what shades will influence designers and manufacturers across industries. Meant to tap into some kind of colorful zeitgeist, these meetings dabble in anthropology, sociology, and art in order to land on a “narrative” for that season’s color. “We’re talking a lot about community, neighborliness, moving from macro- to micro-economy. The whole ‘rurban’ thing—local food, local chocolate,” one colorist riffed in a recent meeting, according to Vanderbilt's account. “How many people use Twitter here?”
Determining the one color with which humans will identify a year from now seems like a bizarre exercise. Of course, Pantone’s proclamations of "official colors" would be meaningless if the rest of the fashion machine didn't play along. But more than ever, designers and manufactures are happy to invest in Pantone’s color guides and the rapid trend turnover they encourage. Buying into new colors means buying new clothes. You may have a closet full of blues, but if the shade is a bit off of Pantone’s predictions, it’s rendered instantaneously passé. When last year’s “Blue Curacao” sweater is banned to the depths of your closet after minimal wear, the result is a closet full of clothes and “nothing to wear.”
Then again, art in all its forms is influenced by the world we live in, and ours is technicolor. And fashion—as crude as it may seem when stacked on a Forever 21 shelf—is popular art. The impulse to rebuke the trend cycle also denies us the opportunity to engage aesthetically with the world around us. Every season, magazines change their covers and layouts to keep us turning the page. Graphic designers labor over new fonts to keep us reading. Interior designers paint over our walls to keep our environment dynamic. Investing in the clothes we wear is no less legitimate an artistic pursuit.
The trick is to learn to express ourselves without trashing the environment and driving down factory workers’ wages. So wild fashion colors—like the latest out-there shapes—should be purchased sparingly. After all, a color that is all the rage today will be gone tomorrow. Not wearing it won’t negatively affect your look, and given the high incidence of hue turnover, it’s entirely possible that the shade won’t perfectly suit you in the first place.
Instead, define yourself by what you can live without. Maybe you don’t care about fashion and color trends, and that’s fine. If you do, maintain a wardrobe based on the basics. Instead of replacing each item in last season’s color with the new version, fill in a piece or two with that great new color. And when you’re over it—and consumer psychology suggests that you soon will be—wrap it up and set it aside. It’s bound to make an appearance again soon—fashion is cyclical, after all.
I finally found Heat Wave on Los Angeles’ west side. I plan to use it until it’s gone, regardless of its shelf life in the eyes of Pantone. It is possible to step outside of the trend machine and just enjoy a nice shade of lipstick. After all, it does suit me, yellow teeth be damned.
Got an ethical fashion question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.