These are dangerous times for safetyism. Our society is becoming more risk-averse and rational. We hunker down, lay low, dig in. As trivial as our wardrobes may seem, one would expect that the male tendency towards wearing dark, unshowy colours at night – black, navy, grey and brown – would remain as strong as ever.
Our distrust for bold colours can even be pathological. It even has a name: chromophobia. This is a society-wide, if not logical, prejudice against color. It can be viewed as infantile (think candyfloss), superficial (a hindrance in seeing the ‘truth behind the form’, as Aristotle argued), and vulgar or cheap.
Traditional male clothing has been dominated for many years by greys, blues, blacks, and whites.
Beau Brummell was the 19th-century ‘tailor’s dummy who killed the flamboyant in men’s dress. He stressed that a lack ornamentation in fashion put the emphasis on the serious, masculine call of cut. Which would you prefer to do business with? A bank manager dressed in a sharp black suit or someone wearing a pinacolada dress? Notice also how the designers rarely leave behind a uniform that would be appropriate graveside, despite all their claims that pink is the new Fuchsia.
Herman Melville said that nature “paints as a harlot”, however, we tend to prefer the man-made to look more subtle. Monochrome is a more valued option. We call it “sophisticated”, “contemporary” and “masculine”. The most popular colour for prestige cars is black. Black-and-white film and photography are aspired to art and high drama. While flashy colours can be a distraction from musicals and fantasies, they are not good for trashy.
The darker colours are the colours of power in clothing. This could be the clergy or a political statement such as Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black” persona. The ominous power that the state has – from Mosley’s Black Shirts and the Gestapo to the Gestapo and even before them – is also evident. In the 1560s, Ivan the Terrible was creating his personal guard, the black-clad Oprichniki or’men apart. No matter if the executioner is real or fictional, Dracula proved that evil doesn’t wear a nice skyblue or leaf green.
However, things are changing. You can see that there is a lot of colour in the catwalk collections. Not just the soft pinks and pale blues that have been a staple in formal shirting for men of all ages. This is big colour. Not subtle colour you’re trying to hide. The 21st century menswear collection has included the sage green mMA-1 Bomber.
The classic French worker jacket is another contemporary icon. It has a distinctive bluey-purple hue.
Yet, the 20th century of menswear is full of big color and sometimes in the most macho settings. The military uses sage green, such as the one used to make a MA1 flight jacket. It is not an understated color, but the bright rescue orange used inside the jacket and early astronaut’s overalls is. Red was the most common color for undershirts in Wild Western western cowboys and miner uniforms. The distinctive purple hue of French work jackets has been a hallmark for many years.
You can go back further in history to see that colour was a mainstay of men’s clothing: Regency period men, who were considered the true peacocks, wore an abundance of aquamarines and cerises. It was the Roman emperors that had exclusive access to purple, a very expensive dye back then. A purple garment was worth its weight in gold. Henry VIII was a fan of this idea and made it a law that he could only wear the color. In the 1980s, the Football Casual style movement used colour to make some very unusual sportswear.
Bold colours were a hallmark of the football Casuals subculture. It is clear that men are not afraid of colour in the past. All those off-colour associations between effeminacy and colour look quite fragile. This may be due to men not being as secure in their sexuality than an outright ban on anything that would look wrong in a city accounting firm.
You can dig deeper and you’ll see that, even though these are irrational times and a logical idea, it is still a rational idea to associate certain colours with men or women. The childrenswear industry, for example, is trying to get rid of the reflexive linking of blue and pink and boys with blue. You can see how artificial and marketing-driven such associations are. This is a stark contrast to what was happening in the Victorian era.
There is no reason to think that men should be allowed to wear loudest colours, just as women can wear navy or black without raising eyebrows. It’s just a habit, echoing what we see around us. This is what we want to conform to in a world that is dark and dismal.
Also, if you have been feeling hesitant about expanding your wardrobe, it may be the right time.