Pantone on Fashion is mostly a picture book of the history of a full spectrum of colors in fashion design. Individual colors are explored, the fashions of the last century that featured that color featured and a bit of history of how the color comes into popular use and fades out only to return again in a decade or two. The information is fascinating, though the peripatetic style of the writing is a bit overwhelming and confusing. It just comes in a rush, a flood of facts, names and designs that reads more like those awful high school geography books that cover the economy, exports, crops, trade, infrastructure and politics in one paragraph. If someone tracked the facts per hundred words, this book would surely rank near the top.
On the other hand, the facts are often fascinating. For example, Poison Green earned its name because during the 19th century, they used arsenic in its manufacture. They no longer do so, but the name has stuck. It was one of the colors Coco Chanel used and the description of a jacket set me searching because it was not in the book. Most of the designs described are included, but there is often one or two for each color that is not. That’s a bit frustrating if the one that sounds most intriguing is the one left out.
There is plenty of industry gossip, including two stories of how fashion journalists tried to push trends at the behest of manufacturers—and fell flat because people do not automatically buy what fashion writers tell them to buy. An interesting story of such an attempt happened in 1950 when an advertiser pushed the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar to push Sunset Pink to promote their new train, The Sunset Limited. It was a disaster, consumers ignored it, people mocked it, she lost one of her best staff and then, to top it off, it was mocked in the film Funny Face, as you can see in the scene below.
Despite feeling overwhelmed by the rush of information, I very much enjoyed Pantone on Fashion. I love fashion and it was interesting to see the ebb and flow of color, the changing fashions and new perspectives. For example, we are often told that fashion is constantly changing, yet in terms of the basics, it does not change that much at all. The authors present Colin McDowell’s argument that “it is possible to say of twentieth-century fashion that there have been only two serious permanent changes: the move from long skirts to short and the adoption of trousers by women.” It all depends on what you are looking at, the basic form or the details.
It was even more interesting to see why colors come and go and what brings them to the forefront. For example, in 2002, the color that was everywhere was Bleached Sand. It seemed so strange to see all the reasons designers gave for choosing that color without acknowledging that we were launching a second Desert Storm. From saying it represented “perfect balance” to being “sophisticated and humble” or a “respite of negativity”, their reasons did not acknowledge the obvious.
I enjoyed the book. I can imagine browsing through it again and again, not just because it will make it easier to absorb more of the information, but also because it’s beautiful and full of beautiful clothing. It is really quite a unique book, fashion reference books are usually organized by decade or by trends and forms, looking at color history is a fresh and interesting perspective.