The History Of Colour: Brown

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According to European and American opinion polls, brown is the least loved of colours and many see it as dull and lacklustre, associating it with the common-place and time-worn. But the colour’s status is set to change as trend guru Li Edelkoort recently announced that brown’s about to make a comeback. 

Derived from the Urdu word for soil-coloured is khaki, brown’s grey cousin, used in reference to uniforms of a British Indian army unit. When worn by British forces serving in the South African War of 1899-1902 it earned them the name ‘Khakis’, a name for the English that lingered long after the war’s end.

‘Brownshirts’ was the moniker of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, the SA.  Little known today is that their signature uniforms were manufactured by Hugo Boss.  From the 1930s Boss’s family-run business company produced various uniforms for the Party, doing so during the war years using forced French and Polish labour.

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Brown has old associations with poverty and medieval sumptuary laws decreed that English peasants only wear brown, mainly to distinguish them from their upper-class countrymen, who could afford colouful dyed fabrics.  Since the early 1200s a simple brown robe has been the dress of Fransciscan monks, who take a vow of poverty and humility.

Shades of brown abound in nature and it’s no wonder that textiles and foods in this colour are considered earthy, environmentally friendly and, in the case of food, healthy. Capitalising on this association and the modern focus on nutrition, some producers colour bread with caramel – made by heating sugar – to give the illusion that it’s healthier.

The suntan is another bronze shade that hides the facts, obtained through sun-worshop and the multi-billion dollar fake tan industry, simply to give the impression of health and wealth, or to obscure wobbly bits.  Tanning is quite a recent trend as Europeans used to prize milk-white skin as sign of class and prosperity, evidence that one did not work outdoors. The industrial revolution with its long working hours and smog-domed cities highlighted the benefits of sunshine and holidaying in sunny places was advocated, but only the upper classes could afford to take holidays and therefore, sport a tan. It was post-holiday photographs of an accidentally-bronzed Coco Chanel that jump-started the 1920s tanning fad as women longed to emulate the designer’s glamourous look. The introduction of the bikini in 1946 certainly helped to politely expose more square-centimetres to the sun.

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For millennia rock artists have sought out earthy pigments to depict wildlife, as seen in the horses of France’s Lascaux caves.  The San artists of the famous Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg used reddish brown to depict an herd of eland accompanied by human-animal hybrids. Painting the eland was a way of harnessing its power and here the death of the beast is paralleled with the trance of the shaman.

Renaissance painters employed brown paint when using chiaroscuro, a shading technique of delicate transitions from light to dark, to create an illusion of volume on flat surfaces.  A murky secret of the painting trade is the curiously named pigment ‘Mummy brown’. Just one of the stimuli behind a thriving pyramid robbing trade, the pigment was made from a mixture of pitch, myrrh and the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies. Clearly unperturbed, in 1712 a purveyor of artist supplies decided to call his Paris shop Á La Momie!

An ancient dye whose popularity hasn’t waned is henna or mehndi.  Wherever the plant occurs naturally societies have for centuries used it to decorate the body on special occasions, particularly for Hindu and Muslim weddings. An ancient ceremony enjoying a revival is Henna Night, a pre-wedding event hosted by the bride’s mother, when henna patterns are applied to hands and feet, symbolic of blessings of luck and joy conferred on the bridal couple.

Whether considered drab or trendy, brown prompted the invention of the world’s first colorimeter. Beer brewer Joseph Williams Lovibond realised that colour was an accurate indicator of his tipple’s quality and invented the Lovibond Comparitor, which measures the colour of liquid against tinted glass disks.

Next time you admire the amber tones in your glass, raise it to Lovibond and find the bright side to Charlie Brown’s dictum, ‘In the book of life, the answers aren’t found in the back’.

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Text by Annemi Conradie


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Then you may want to read Exploring The History Of A Colour: Purple and Exploring The History Of A Colour: PINK


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