THR Web Features   /   December 10, 2014

Color Commentary

Leann Davis Alspaugh

Pantone's color campaign for its 2015 Color of the Year, Marsala (photo: Pantone)

To introduce Marsala, the 2015 Color of the Year, Pantone Color Institute executive director Leatrice Eiseman pulled out all the stops: “Marsala enriches our mind, body and soul, exuding confidence and stability. Marsala is a subtly seductive shade, one that draws us in to its embracing warmth.”

Who knew that a color could do so much?

Pantone, the color house used by graphic designers and color-trend followers, makes a big splash every year by naming the shade to watch. Immediately after the announcement, clothing manufacturers, makeup companies, home décor designers, and fashionistas set to work blogging and chatting about the new possibilities of glamor and sensation opened up by the color.

Pantone’s own website introduced Marsala, a deep burgundy red, earlier this month with the full fashion-magazine treatment. A series of photographs incorporating color-coordinated clothing, makeup, food, and fabrics showcase the obligatory gorgeous models—exotic men with stubble, beautiful women with chunky accessories—all cavorting in a to-die-for apartment drenched in the shades of wine. One photo even shows a wine-colored playscript cover of “A Midsummer Marsala Dream.”

In early December, the Wall Street Journal featured a Marsala mash-up including ties, jeans, handbags, necklaces, plates, and—for the girl who has everything—wine-colored mascara and brow enhancer. Naysayers like Tanya Basu in The Atlantic found little comfort or warmth in a color that made her think of dried blood or rust. Pantone’s models may be sampling wine and pomegranate seeds, but Basu saw industrial carpets and dorm rooms. And she was not alone in her low regard for the color. The Cut blogger Kathleen Hou pouted that the color was “icky" and “makes you want to go to Olive Garden.”

The decision to tout one color as The Color is not taken lightly. Colors and their names convey a range of emotions, make intangible impressions, and create market possibilities. Pantone’s name for the chosen color is as important as the shade itself—even though the names can be mildly confusing. Mimosa, the pick of 2009, was a bright buttery yellow, while honeysuckle, a feminine pink, was the color for 2011. The honeysuckle flower can also be yellow, while mimosa flowers are typically pink—did that make these colors tough to sell? Last year’s color, Radiant Orchid, a lavender-pink shade, was a hot seller in the spring, but when fall arrived,  what was to be done with all those Radiant Orchid-colored toasters? Turquoise, the color of 2010, demonstrated truth in advertising, a blue-green shade close to that of the gemstone. Yet those with fond memories of rusty Chili Pepper, the color for 2007, might be forgiven for seeing its resemblance to Marsala.

The history of color is closely tied to cultural moments. The arrival of the Spanish in the Americas in the sixteenth century led to the export of massive quantities of cochineal, an insect that when ground up becomes a durable and brilliant scarlet. The ladies of Spain quickly clamored for all things bright red and pink (which they usually purchased with silver coins minted from colonial American ore). In the 1850s, the color mauve was discovered by a young chemist who was trying to synthesize artificial quinine. The residue from one his experiments became the world’s first aniline dye, guaranteed not to fade with time and washing. Queen Victoria wore a mauve gown to her daughter’s wedding, and Empress Eugénie of France cooed that the color matched her eyes—and an epidemic of “mauve measles” swept Europe. As cultural historian Simon Garfield noted in his 2001 book on the history of mauve, the color’s popularity led to burgeoning interest in the practical applications of chemistry and advances in the fields of medicine, weaponry, perfume, and photography. Mauve became indelibly associated with the elaborate, overstuffed décor of the Victorian period; when mauve returned in the 1980s, it was billed as “dusty rose,” a name much more congenial with that era’s other favorite color: hunter green.

Marsala is no mauve, but it does reflect our present cultural mood. Commentators have often noted that during times of economic and political instability, people seek out ways to control their immediate environments. This nesting instinct combined with a dramatic increase in the supply of cheap consumer goods has led furniture makers, interior designers, and fabric designers to swath and cushion homes in piles of pillows, deeply padded furniture, and colorful appliances. Our image-saturated age creates consumers eager to translate the flickering screen into a pleasing palette of color and texture in their homes. In the closely tied areas of fashion and makeup, the last few years have been characterized by alternating waves of luxury and austerity. The flames of indulgence are first fanned and then banked back in the name of simplicity and conservation (or what in fashion is known as “vintage,” itself a term that also applies to wine). Pantone’s color campaign plays on on this dynamic by drunkenly mixing leather and lace, tweed and organza with floral prints, stripes, and damask in a kind of lost Marsala weekend.

Inevitably, Marsala evokes food and drink. To quote Pantone’s Eiseman again: “It [the color] has an organic and sophisticated air.” Marsala is both earthy and complex, not accidentally, words also used to describe wine.

But the greatest source of Marsala’s current authority is its well marketed ubiquity. Pantone’s ability to dictate mood by coloring our clothing, our walls, our accessories, even our coffee-makers is powerful indeed. Interestingly, the last time a similar shade swept the fashion world, it was called oxblood. This non-Pantone wannabe had its moment, but its Oxbridge connotations of privilege just didn’t give it staying power. Or maybe it was a lack of official Pantone status. From our public appearance to how we feather our nests, Marsala could prove to be just as powerful as the Sicilian fortified wine for which it is named.