Brown is a composite color known to mankind since the ancient times. It is also one of the most widely used colors in art. However, what has been the role of brown in clothing and fashion? It turns out that the elegance of brown tones and the soothing warm impression that many associate with coffee, chocolate, autumn and many flavors, - has not always been the case in the past.
Just because this color has been waiting for its turn for quite some time, and in anticipation of the warm tones of the season, I finally decided to go deeper into historical background of the color brown as its role are being updated from time to time and it appears in the range of fashionable clothing.
The Color Brown: From Ancient Origins To Modern Times
The word brown comes from Old English “brún,” used for any dusky or dark shade of color. Brown represents earthiness. While brown might be considered a little dull compared to the other colors, brown also represents simplicity, health, and dependability.[2.]
Brown has been used in art since ancient times by using a natural clay pigment that consisted of iron oxide and manganese oxide. [4.] The subsequent use of this pigment is due to the appearance of many shades in art. However, in clothing and fashion, brown has not been used very often. And yet the color brown appears already in Ancient Egyptian art and very often.
In spite of the idea that the Ancient Egyptians only used reddish-brown (for males) and yellow (for females) to depict the color of the skin, brown was also widely used in tomb paintings in different contexts to represent skin color.
Also in the ancient world - Greeks and Romans produced sepia that was a fine reddish-brown ink made from the ink of a variety of cuttlefish. [4.] Sepia is one of the finest tones that is still associated with antiquity today. In addition to that, during the Renaissance era Leonardo da Vinci also used sepia ink for his writings and drawings.[ 4.]
And what about the brown as the color of clothing?
Looks like in the ancient world, brown was the color of poverty and low social status.
There are indications in the literature that in Ancient Rome, brown clothing was associated with the lower classes or barbarians. Urban poor people who were called the plebeians, wore brown clothing. Literally 'the plebeians' was "pullati" - "those dressed in brown". [1.]
In the Middle Ages brown clothes were worn by monks of the Franciscan order. Unobtrusive color was a sign of their humility and poverty. During that era each social class had to wear a color that represented their status. Grey and brown shades were the colors of the poor people. [4.]
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, European art witnessed a variety of brown tones, as well as new, rather extravagant tones, and the strangeness of the process of obtaining them. For example, there was a mummy brown that was originally, during the 16th and 17th centuries were made from white pitch, myrrh, and the most interestingly - off the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies. Sources say, that brown was obtained from human and feline mummies. [10.] A strange method. Isn't it?
The greatest 17th and 18th century European artists have used brown tones. Caravaggio and Rembrandt were using brown hues to create chiaroscuro effects...So that the subject they depicted could appear out of darkness. Rembrandt also became known for using a new brown shade called Cassel earth or Cologne earth.[4.] Sources say that this was a natural earth color composed of over ninety percent organic matter, such as soil and peat. The same hue was also used by Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. Later this brown shade became known as Van Dyck brown. [4.]
Camouflage outfits began in the 18th century, when brown was a popular color for military uniforms. [4.] It was a widely available color and helped to make uniforms less visible under certain circumstances.
The time when the brown color became a fashion mark really only came in the 20's of the 20th century, when it gained an important place in the palette of elegance.
As can be concluded, the brown hues were among the oldest ones used by mankind in art. Nevertheless, the popularity of these tones in clothing are more related to modern times. Brown was a color of modesty, mourning, poverty and low social status. Attitudes toward this color changed fundamentally during the 19th century, reaching a wave of bronze popularity in the Art Deco period of the 1920's. Since then, it has been possible to observe the periodic return of browns to the heights of fashion trends.
References & Further Reading:
1.Heller E. Psychologie de la couleur' -effets et symboliiques. - Pyramyd, 2009.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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