Colour association: shades of meaning

The connotations of colours have changed through the ages and across cultures. Now psychologists are discovering why we make colour associations, and what this says about the way we see the world, as Vision reports

The owner could have his car “painted any colour that he wanted as long as it’s black”. Henry Ford’s famous edict on launching his groundbreaking Model T car in 1908 may have suggested a hard-nosed entrepreneurial spirit. But the Model T was in fact launched in four colour options and Ford only added black a few years later in response to demand. Black, it was said, evoked the sophistication of car ownership.

Black and silver continue to be the bestselling colours with car buyers, but manufacturers also use other colours to build brands – Lamborghini’s yellow – or to promise excitement, as with Ferrari’s signature red. However, many common associations are either unproven or deeply cultural. For centuries, perhaps millennia, particular colours have developed specific and mostly subliminal meanings in different societies.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted colour’s fluid and very often contradictory connotations. Red is historically linked to executioners but also came to be identified with the higher ranks of the Catholic Church. In the West, blue is the colour of royalty and the rich; in the East, it is the colour of the worker and the peasant.

Cultural significance

“In the Middle East, black is regarded very differently from the way it is in Europe,” says Tamara Hostal, founder of the Esmod Dubai fashion institute, which places the study of colour at the heart of its courses. “For the past 30 years, abayas in the Middle East have typically been black, so students see it everywhere in the street. That makes them more inclined to work with bright colours, which suit the light here. They’re more interested in effect than recognising that colours have different resonances between cultures.”

Yellow is still equated with wealth in Eastern Europe and Muslim societies, presumably because it suggests gold or money. In Japanese and Hindi societies, green is related to good luck, perhaps because it hints at the natural verdancy of good health. But why, for example, do the same societies also see green as signifying jealousy (as in the West through metaphor: “green with envy”, “the green-eyed monster”)?

Why, aside from its seemingly sombre tone, is black the colour of mourning in the West, but white in China, yellow in Egypt, red in South Africa and blue in Iran? Many such connections, while barely noticed consciously at all, amount to little more than myth or superstition. Nurses in the UK still refuse to allow red and white flowers to be displayed together on a hospital ward – one explanation is that the colours connote bloody bandages.

Such associations shift. White, linked to purity, is a traditional wedding colour in Muslim countries, as it is in the West. But in the Middle Ages it was a darker shade – dark dyes required expensive pigments, so they were a sign of prosperity. Multiculturalism is ensuring that such connotations are waning, but colour is still immensely powerful in the way it can shape perception and emotion.

“Sometimes colour association is engineered: the link between hospitals and pale green or pink, for example, is based on ideas of how colour affects mood,” says Regina Lee Blaszczyk, visiting scholar in history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Color Revolution.

“Prior to the 1920s, most hospitals were painted white, but it created a glare that was harder to operate in. It was a doctor who first suggested pale green. Some say it’s calming, but the truth of any colour psychology is very hard to measure.”

Despite these largely subliminal reactions, our day-to-day responses to colour are more immediately shaped by fashion and contemporary notions of good taste, which tend to favour the muted, tonal and less obviously artificial. “Bright colour has long been associated with primitive cultures,” says Blaszczyk.

Quality and taste

Heti Gervis, of colour consultants Heti’s Colours, who counts the likes of Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret and DKNY among past clients, agrees that the connection between colour and taste holds true. “Colours tend to come around in four-year cycles. They have their moment in fashion and product design because colour is an effective design tool in making things look new again,” she adds.

“Often the perceived sophistication of a colour is about its depth, a product of the quality of the dye and the material it’s used on,” she adds. “The orange on the international catwalks of late has looked amazing, but it looks awful by the time it filters down to the high street.”

Small wonder that today, for all the vibrancy that dye technology can provide with almost any material, and for all that nature, colour still gives out confusing messages. The prejudice against colour can literally be pathological. It’s called chromophobia. What a bleak world its sufferers must live in.