Natural Envy: A History of the Color Green in Fashion

Google “green in fashion,” and you’ll get a ton of hits directing you to eco-friendly clothing. Earth-friendly fashion is a wonderful thing, but on St. Patrick’s Day I’d like to talk about green, as in no-finger-quotes-just-the-actual-color green. As seen in our earlier investigation of the color red, green is also a color with duplicitous meanings and weighty connotations. (I wonder if a seemingly innocent color such as pink also carries such complex histories and symbolism.)

Linguistically, green is related to the Old English verb, grōwan (“to grow, turn green”) and across cultures green is commonly associated with growth, regeneration, fertility and nature. Conversely, green is also used in reference to death, illness, envy and the devil. One iconic example is seen in Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement, where a pear-tinged Charon (the ferryman of Hades) is shown swatting the damned into Hell with his oar. In the early 17th century, St. Patrick’s Day celebrants began wearing green ribbons and shamrocks in reference to the three-leaf clover Saint Patrick is said to have used to teach the Holy Trinity to the Irish people. It’s a risky sartorial statement, though. On any other day, wearing green would be considered unlucky by the Irish who link the color to fairies—a mischievous breed with a penchant for child snatching.

In addition, we have such phrases as “green with envy” and “the green-eyed monster” both in reference to people harboring more than a little bit of jealously. There is also “to be green” and “greenhorn,” meaning inexperience. None of these phrases are particularly flattering. So it comes as no surprise that green is not a common color in the fashion world.

Which is not to say that green hasn’t had a spin in the fashion limelight. In 1934, public relations tycoon Edward Bernays infamously dropped a fair amount of green promoting the color. He hosted a Green Ball and courted magazine editors, interior designers and department stores with press kits extolling the virtues of green—all in the hope that American women would feel compelled to color coordinate with the forest packaging of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Sales figures indicate Bernays’ efforts were a success, but his employer—American Tobacco president George Washington Hill—only saw red and fired Bernays.

Green became a wildly popular hue in the 1960s styles, as shades of lime, leaf and chartreuse perfectly captured that go-go, psychedelic groove. The colors were so prevalent in fashion that Harper’s Bazaar devoted its May 1961 issue to the color, promoting swimsuits, dresses and other fashions in every spectrum of the shade. At the end of the 1980s, green once again inserted itself into the fashion psyche. American designers such as Calvin Klein and Anne Klein featured a multitude of shades, from apple to lichen, in their collections, prompting some fashion insiders to declare greens the new neutrals. Of course, not everyone agreed on chartreuse as a neutral. Leatrice Eiseman—then and now the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute—reaffirmed the wide-ranging scope of greens, but said “to call them all the new neutrals is stretching the point a bit. When we think of neutral, we think of colors that work with everything.”

When it comes to memorable leading ladies in green, no one, perhaps not even Scarlett O’Hara in her famous green velvet curtain dress (the envy-causing debutante actually wore green in almost every scene off the film) can top Keira Knightley’s slip of a green gown in Atonement. Over the course of just a few scenes, the dress encapsulates every meaning of its color: first as a marker of inexperience, then a symbol of her sister’s envious intentions and ultimately a cursed omen of death. And yet, what women or girl watched those scenes and didn’t die of envy for that dress? A woman in green isn’t the jealous type. A woman in green knows she causes envy in others.

At awards shows and other special events, green is a rare choice, a risky business considering the proximity to the red carpet and the peril of looking like a Christmas tree. One celebrity in no danger of ever inciting comparisons to Christmas décor is Angelina Jolie. Known for keeping black au courant, when the striking actress chooses to wear color she often turns to green. In 2008, she set the standard for moms-to-be in a peridot goddess gown by Max Azria, and at the 2011 Golden Globes (below, far right) she was one of four stars in the envious shade. Angie’s shimmering, long-sleeved and bold-shouldered dark cyan Versace number battled it out against the heavy-handed emerald choices of Mila Kunis, Elizabeth Moss and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Barely a month later New York Fashion Week was awash in shades of green, from the avocado and lime shades of 3.1 Philip Lim’s smart separates to the forest hues employed in Marni’s geometric prints a few weeks later in Milan. An early February analysis by the color experts at Pantone show that 15.23 percent of designers will be using a deep teal in their collections—a color they describe as “a strong, blue-toned green suggesting ocean depths and…the sky as daylight descends into darkness.” The next most common shade, quarry—a versatile but predictable autumn gray—clocked in at 12.58 percent. This time around, the prevalent population of greens in the fashion conscience may be attributed to how well a shade like deep teal plays with others. Pantone’s trend analysis pointed to deep teal as “a unique counterpoint to honeysuckle.” And honeysuckle, a cloying pink tone, is the color of the year. It’s safe to say green is an “it” color for fall. If you dare, get ready to spread the envy. —Katrina Ernst

Credits: Top: Shades of Green Dresses by Frances McLaughlin-Gill for the April 1952 Glamour, courtesy Vogue/Conde Nast. Second from top: (from top left) 1960s green makeup and accessories by Irving Penn; three shades of green from the 1950s and 60s, photographers unknown. Third from top: Henrietta Tiarks in Nina Ricci kelly green suit by Mark Shaw. Fourth from top: (from top left) Shades of green on the cover of L’Officiel; Dolores del Rio promotes the green of Lucky Strikes; spring green on a 1960s-era Vogue; Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Vogue. Fifth from top (from top left) Harper’s Bazaar May 1961 issue devoted to green; Patti Hansen in green Courreges, Vogue 1978; an ad for Charles Jourdan shoes by Guy Bourdin coordinates emerald and scarlett, 1976. Sixth from top: Scenes from Atonement (left) and Gone with the Wind (right). Second from bottom: Golden Globes 2011 photos from Wireimages/Getty Images. Bottom: Green dress by Jean Francoise Lapage.

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7 Responses to “Natural Envy: A History of the Color Green in Fashion”

  • Rachel Chambers:

    Awesome history! So much info both past and present.

  • But the question is: Are you wearing green today, Katrina? I wore green eyeliner but not clothes. As a redhead I’m sure you can relate to that if I wear green on St. Patrick’s Day everyone asks “Are you Irish?!?!?!” And then they’re disappointed when I’m “only” German :)

    • Katrina E.:

      Of course! I have a green scarf on. Hitting up a couple of shades: teal, lime and chartreuse I’d say.

    • I wore green eyeliner too (and a green shoes, shirt, earrings, headband and jacket…) and am also a redhead! Alas, I am Irish…

      Katrina – I think this might be my favorite article of yours to date

      • Katrina E.:

        Thanks, Katherine! I’m sure you looked fabulous rocking all that green!

  • Kathleen:

    This is a very interesting history! You don’t see green very much in movies or the red carpet. I love the green dress in Atonement.

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