Colour • Power • Identity

Colour, Power & Identity. This is the title of a forthcoming book chapter I’ve written for ‘A Cultural History of Colour in the Modern Age’. Edited by Carole Biggam and Kirsten Wolf, this book is being published by Bloomsbury and publication is due in late 2017.

The notion of a link between colour, power and identity has intrigued me for some time.  Colour is of course a key element in corporate identity design and branding. As Wally Olins noted, the link between colour and corporate identity has its origins in history. In the first century AD, the Picts used woad to colour their faces blue. During his campaign in Britain, Julius Caesar noted their terrible, fearful appearance. In the 13th century, Sir William Wallace led the first Scottish uprising against the English. Mel Gibson depicted Wallace with a distinctive blue face in the 1995 film Braveheart. While the use of blue may have been one of a number of inaccuracies in this film, colour has served as an effective non-verbal signifier culminating in widespread use of colour and heraldry of the Crusades.

Angela Merkel (b. 1954) has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005. Described as one of the most powerful people in the world, Merkel currently appears second on Forbes Magazine’s Top Ten Most Powerful People, 2015 as per their website.  Merkel was also named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, 2015. You can read Time Magazine’s full article and biographical notes here.

Merkel’s stature as a highly effective political and economic leader is in no way diminished by her somewhat unique approach to fashion. Merkel has a notable preference for wearing suit jackets in a range of different block colours. She appears to prefer a jacket with three front buttons in either a lapel or collarless style, varying the jacket fabric to suit the occasion. Merkel’s preference in this respect is so well known that Dutch designer Noortje van Eekelen  created a Pantone-style colour chart featuring an array of Merkel’s jackets. Damian Gayle wrote an article ‘Fifty Shades of Angela Merkel’ which was published in the Daily Mail on 19 July 2012. You can read the full article here. Merkel uses a formulaic approach to colour and fashion that suits her, adds to her identity and supports her role as leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world.

In an article in the New York Times on 3 April 2015, Alex Hawgood noted the preponderance of Mark Zuckerberg to prefer gray t-shirts. Zuckerberg is founder and CEO of Facebook and was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2010. You can read more about his nomination here.

In response to a question about his preference for grey t-shirts, Zuckerberg provided a response that Hawgood noted was equal parts Zen and Type A. “I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people,” he said. “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything, except how to best serve this community.” So, the reliance on a simple clothing formula enables Zuckerberg to focus on his key goals and not be side-tracked by making frequent fashion decisions.  While Zuckerberg’s abrogation of decision-making in respect to ongoing fashion decisions is perfectly understandable, he has never-the-less elevated the humble grey t-shirt to an icon for power and identity within the social media and IT sector. You can read the full New York Times article here.

In a similar way, Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani (b. 1934) is well known for wearing almost predominantly navy.  Perhaps as an antidote to the relentlessness of constant, ongoing creativity, Armani appears to apply a simply approach to his own clothing. often wears navy t-shirts and trousers, or navy suits. This penchant for navy was noted in a recent article by Lauren Cochrane in The Guardian and you can read the full article here.  Armani, whose fashion empire thrives on innovation and creativity, often uses saturated colour in his collections. These saturated colours are inevitably offset by a simple colour palette limited to white, grey, navy, charcoal and black.

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