Editor’s Note: This feature is part of Colorscope, an award-winning series exploring our perception of color and its use across cultures, one shade at a time.
It is the color of fall, of beautiful sunsets, of a warm fireplace in the dreary winters and of marigold flowers.
Frank Sinatra called orange the happiest color. Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky described orange as “red brought nearer to humanity by yellow.”
It is a sacred color in many Eastern religions. Hindu and Buddhist monks wear orange robes, and in Hinduism, orange represents fire and therefore purity; impurities are burned in fire.
The word orange came into the vernacular late, according to Julian Yates, professor of English and material culture studies at University of Delaware.
The color and the fruit are closely tied together; the English word for the color comes from the same word as the fruit, Yates said.
Hottest of all colors
Orange is perceived by some as the hottest of all colors, the most gregarious and fun-loving color, said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. Oranges and orange blossoms have historically been considered symbols of love and fruitfulness, she added.
“This belief started in ancient times, as it was seen as the color reflective of love, both earthly and heavenly. Greek muses wore orange, as did Bacchus, the pagan Roman god,” Eiseman said.
“In general terms, a color ascribed to a god perpetuated the hope and belief of immortality.”
Orange is also the color of fire – of molten lava in erupting volcanoes and slow-burning wood. Discovery of fire was a defining moment for mankind.
“They developed fire, a source of warmth and comfort and the end to eating raw food. What color was fire? Orange,” said Sara Petitt, faculty of fabric styling at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She pointed out that orange is an energetic color. “It combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow.”
Dichotomy: rarity and commonality
According to Eiseman, the color orange wasn’t readily available to the masses until technology caught up and orange dyes could be produced chemically. That didn’t happen until the 20th century.
For that reason, it became a highly desirable color, she said.
“The earliest uses in the 20th century was more for theatrical purposes than anything else. It was a great favorite for theatrics and dance programs, on the stage, in costuming,” she said.
Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of Ballets Russes, used orange profusely in costuming and sets in the early 1900s, she pointed out. “It was a traveling dance company. Not everybody could afford to see those amazing colors. So, again, it was a color reserved mostly for those people who had a great deal of money,” she said.
In contrast, once orange dyes became more readily available, the color came to be associated with affordability.
In recent times, orange has been adopted by causes and companies.
There’s Wear Orange, a coalition of more than 200 nonprofit organizations demanding gun safety. “Orange is a bright, bold color that demands to be seen,” its website says. “Orange expresses our collective hope as a nation – a hope for a future free from gun violence.”
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, has utilized the color as a theme running through all of its global campaigning to prevent and end violence against women and girls. “This color was adopted as a symbol of a brighter future, free from violence against women and girls,” UN Women spokeswoman Sharon Grobeisen said.
Jennifer Wyatt, archivist at Home Depot, said that when the home improvement store started in the United States in 1978, the founders wanted an affordable and accessible store. “They picked the color orange because of that accessibility, activity and also the affordability, because they didn’t want customers to be intimidated,” she said. The color is also associated with other DIY chain stores globally, such as UK company B&Q.
“In the late ’70s, do-it-yourself wasn’t really the way it is now, where everybody does it themselves. So they wanted it to be appealing to people, to stimulate that activity,” Wyatt added. The orange store signs were visible to freeway traffic.
Standing out in style
The Fashion Institute of Technology’s Petitt believes orange is associated with inner magnetism. “I don’t think shy people wear orange. You want to be noticed if you wear orange,” she said.
“If you are depressed and you go to your closet, you are probably not going to pick out an orange dress to wear.”
It is also considered a transitional color because it is associated with the change in season. Fashion psychologist and blogger Shakaila Forbes-Bell said the color has gained a lot of interest in recent years.
“We see safety orange, as it is titled, up and down the catwalks for spring and summer 2018 especially in the New York shows like Tom Ford, Calvin Klein and Rihanna’s Fenty Puma,” she said.
Forbes-Bell said it’s not surprising that orange is having a revival.
“Nowadays, we have seen a revival of bold colors,” she added.
In the 1990s, as computers became ubiquitous, the Western world gained access to views of the way other cultures used color. People saw orange in different contexts than they might have seen it before, said Eiseman. Exotic, orange-hued spices from around the world became more familiar in the kitchen. Neon orange had a moment in fashion and street art. Makeup for people with darker skin tones became more common, and often employed hints of orange. Even kids TV shows, such as “Rugrats,” used the color often.
Owing to this exposure, the appreciation for orange is far greater than it ever has been before.
“Designers like Hermes and Versace have long embraced orange, and now people, not only in the US but all over the world, were viewing how dynamic the color could be, and it helped to raise consumer awareness,” she said.
Eiseman pointed out that when top designers feature a color, there is much of an aspirational quality that it takes on. One might not be able to afford a Hermes scarf, but one could certainly find that “look” and color for a lower price, she said.
Since the mid-1990s, she said, orange has steadily grown more of a favorite, and every year, we have seen that it still stays in the color palette.
“With color trends, colors are favorites for a number of years, and then they retreat in the background,” she said.
“That has not happened with orange,” she said. “Orange has stayed.”
See more from our Colorscope series here.