Orange is the new… brown

Alexandra Loske on the juiciest colour, back in fashion.

Frederic Leighton, Flaming June 1895. Museo de Arte de Ponce Puerto Rico.

This summer the artist Grayson Perry, known for his penchant for strikingly colourful outfits, wore an orange dress to the Art Fund Museum of the Year award ceremony, at the British Museum. The artist stood in stark visual contrast to the other, dark-suited officials (nothing new here), raising speculation about the reasons for his attire. Did he want to show solidarity with the Just Stop Oil activists, who have been busy dowsing high-profile targets in orange paint, powder and confetti? Or was this a cunning ploy to minimise the impact of any such attack? Was Perry’s sartorial colour choice aesthetical, practical or political: or a combination of all three?

Orange has long had political connotations. As the symbolic colour of the House of Orange, it was in the twentieth century adopted by the Northern Irish Unionists; as a mix of SDP red and Liberal yellow it has been taken up by the Liberal Democrat Party; as the colour of jumpsuits worn by the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, it was adopted by Amnesty International to protest their detention without trial. And so it goes on.

And when it comes to fashion it’s not just Perry, of course. Orange is in, this year. I have seen and been tempted by bright orange suits and dresses in magazines and shop windows, and let me tell you, this year’s trending orange is vivid. A few years ago, fashion seemed to be all about earthy ochres and saffron shades. These current oranges are bright, vibrant, and dangerously close to being neon (I am typing this with neon-orange nails). Products designed with orange-coloured packaging, and orange company branding seem to be all the rage, too (I needn’t name names, just keep your eyes open).

This is curious, given that in the only major survey – admittedly not very scientific – of colour preferences and associations, conducted by the late German author Eva Heller in the 1990s, orange came second (after brown) in the list of least favourite colours in Western culture. Now, a generation later, it is being embraced. Perhaps it has something to do with Covid. Do we have a craving for brightness and boldness after years of being hemmed in, physically and mentally?

The same thing was happening a century ago. I was recently intrigued by the unflinching use of orange in an official paper programme of events for the Brighton Carnival in June 1923. The front cover is an illustration of a parade, with the white silhouette of the Royal Pavilion in a corner. In the foreground is a woman dressed in typical 1920s style clothing and headdress. Embodying the spirit of Brighton, she wears an orange jump suit and orange shoes, contrasting with the complementary blue background, for maximum effect (a trick Vincent van Gogh and Cèzanne were well versed in). Orange is the colour of vibrancy, activity and activism.

1970s psychedelic oranges, and David Bowie

In the late 1990s, when Heller was carrying out her survey, designers tended to avoid orange, and the colour was not often seen in fashion, interiors or advertising. But that wasn’t always the case.

Orange was the dominant colour of my 70s childhood, and is one of my earliest chromatic memories. The Cold War era embraced warm colours, and there is no colour more intense and life-affirming than orange. It is perhaps one of the most overlooked and misunderstood of colours, but it has, down the years, left a mark on fashion and art, most notably in the fabulously vibrant interiors of that era. The first true post-war generation were decorating their living spaces, and they did so with a confidence and desire for new styles that had not been seen before.

In the mid-70s my parents opted for a bold new wallpaper featuring large orange and brown overlapping circles. We ate from orange-and-brown pressed glass plates, and my mother and aunts often dressed as if trying to compete with the wallpaper. As a child I was fascinated by the abstract quality of these patterns. Were they stylised flowers? Or circles of light emanating from bulbous lampshades, which were hovering in the rooms like UFOs? Circular designs in glossy orange were everywhere, reminding me of egg yolks glistening in a frying pan.

Charles H H Burleigh, Brighton Front, c1920 © The artist’s estate. Courtesy of Brighton & Hove Museums.

It wasn’t just the young. I have fond memories of my grandmother’s orange and yellow melamine kitchen cabinets, which I would decorate with flower stickers. Growing up in West Germany, I was also surrounded by ‘fat lava’ ceramics, looking like they had dropped from the sky in large, hot blobs. I could not yet appreciate the brilliance of David Bowie at such a young age, but I do remember thinking that he looked as if he was on fire when I saw the cover of Low (1977), his hair dyed bright orange, silhouetted against an orange background.

Many of those bold colour schemes had disappeared by the 1980s, giving way to palate-cleansing whites, pastels and creams, but as a student in the early 1990s I unexpectedly found myself living with the palette of my childhood again: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I moved to the former East Germany, and rented apartments that had not been redecorated. The two prevailing colours of walls, tiles, kitchen cabinets and woodwork in those beautiful run-down Berlin buildings were still orange and brown. With a slightly heavy heart I replaced everything with dull whites.

Orange in colour history (fruity)

Orange is one of the most visible colours on the spectrum, and is used around the world for this quality, for example in street signage and for hi-vis vests and boiler suits of construction site workers and US convicts and political prisoners. In respect of high-visibility, orange is similar to yellow (see ROSA #5). What needs to be seen and found is often orange, such as the so-called ‘black boxes’ of aircraft. Yet, despite its visibility, orange is strangely elusive. A compound, or secondary colour, it occupies the chromatic space between the primaries red and yellow and is often absorbed by one or the other, both visually and linguistically. It is no less luminous and visible than its colour-spectrum neighbours, but strangely absent in Western culture and consciousness. There was no basic colour name for orange in the Western world for many centuries. In the English language it doesn’t appear until Shakespeare’s time, and even then only rarely, mostly as a modifier of brown. Before the 18th century, orange, when mentioned at all, is usually described as yellow-red or red-yellow. This is largely due to the history of the fruit that gives it its name: oranges were first cultivated in China thousands of years ago, but only made their way onto Western dining tables (and into the English language) very slowly.

Another reason is the relative scarcity of the colour orange in the West, and its fleetingness when it appears. Dramatic sunsets, large fires, autumn leaves turning from green to glowing shades of orange – all these are short-lived. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be captured: Romantic painters such as JMW Turner made burning skies a key motif in their art. I mentioned the four paintings by Turner in the Carved Room at Petworth House in ROSA #5, as examples of his use of yellow, but they are arguably more orange than yellow. This is curious in itself: we often don’t acknowledge orange as a colour, despite seeing it. Turner’s sunsets or van Gogh’s sunflowers are more likely described as golden, yellow, or red than orange.

Isaac Newton was one of the first to firmly put orange on the colour map: his colour wheel, published in 1704, lists it as one of the seven prismatic hues. However, another significant colour researcher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, did not dare to use the word orange in his famous Doctrine on Colours (1810). Luckily, there is a delicious list of oranges by the 18thcentury German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner, translated into English by Patrick Syme in 1814. This was the first time a range of oranges were named and described in print: Dutch, Buff, Orpiment, Brownish, Reddish, and Deep Reddish Orange. This colour list was consulted by Darwin on his voyages on the Beagle: orpiment orange, he read, could be found on the ‘belly of the warty newt’ (should you have one handy).

Walter Jenner (1836-1901), Fishing Boats off Brighton Courtesy of Brighton & Hove Museums

Orange in art and design

Earthy burnt ochres, which could be described as orange, were among the first colours ever used by humans, and can be found in the earliest cave paintings, but stable bright orange pigments and dyestuffs were rare in Western culture. Brilliant orange pigments only became widely available in the form of ‘modern’ or synthetic pigments – such as chrome and cadmium oranges – in the 19th century. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists loved these new, glowing colours, and painted many a cadmium-orange sunset. Monet switched on a metaphorical orange light by placing a blob of intense orange representing a rising sun in his 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant). Thus he captured a fleeting moment – the titular ‘impression’ – with a smidgeon of paint squeezed from a tube, and unintentionally giving a whole art movement its name. He contrasted this with a complementary blue (as Turner, Cézanne, van Gogh and many artists and designers have done) in order to get the most out of this glowing colour.

The Pre-Raphaelites and their followers dressed female figures in swathes of orange fabric, with the best example being Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June (1895). The painting oozes warmth – heat even – sensuality, softness and light, and orange commands almost the entire pictorial space. This type of Victorian art clearly influenced 1970s fashion designers such Zandra Rhodes, Bill Gibb and Ossie Clark, who created maxi dresses with screenprinted floral patterns, often in similar jewel-like colours. Orange was used to great effect and with great confidence by many 20th-century artists, among them several abstract painters, such as Lee Krasner, William Scott, Helen Frankenthaler, Yves Klein (before he turned blue), and of course Mark Rothko (who may well have referenced Turner).

And orange goes from strength to strength. In one of the best books on colour in recent years (On Colour, by David Scott Kastan and Stephen Farthing) the authors make a case for orange being ‘the new brown’, essentially a lighter, brighter, more chromatic version of ochres, liberated by new pigments, new attitudes, new hope, and a zest for life.

Sussex oranges (non-fruity)

Orange is predominantly associated with the East, especially China and India, but there are many examples of this divisive, flame-like colour in the West, including Sussex. At my place of work, the Royal Pavilion, two large Chinoiserie paintings by Robert Jones from c1818 have just returned to the building after many years in storage. One of them depicts a child peering into a glass bowl with three goldfish. These are of course not golden at all but painted with glowing shades of orange. Is it coincidence that the child is dressed in blue, or was our Regency artist well aware of the visual power of complementary colour?

There are of course the gorgeous golden-orange Turners at Petworth House, commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Egremont in the 1820s, but a new exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery also shows a stunning sunset painted in a similar style. Fishing Boats off Brighton by Isaac Walter Jenner (1836–1901) may not be as great a masterpiece as one of Turner’s sunsets, but it makes the same use of orange pigments and paints, depicting warmth, light and expanse. The painting, recently cleaned by the conservation team, simply glows in the See the Sea exhibition (on display until Spring 2024).

Another star in the same exhibition surprises with oranges: In Charles Burleigh’s Brighton Front (c1920), we see a bustling seafront scene, with the focus on fashionable seaside visitors and Brightonians. The orange brickwork and roofs of the Metropole Hotel in the background, illuminated by afternoon sun, glow as warmly as a Turner sunset, and perhaps this is a celebration of municipal achievements or urban life in general. But I was also struck by the sartorial colour of the figures: there are several bright orange outfits, worn by women, and I couldn’t help thinking of the woman on the 1920s carnival poster in that short period of hope and enthusiasm after the First World War, and of the orange post-Covid dresses I’ve seen in shops this summer. I may just go and purchase one in the sale and wear it to the next ROSA launch.

Alexandra Loske is the Curator of The Royal Pavilion.