Who’s ‘nude’? Fashion debates a loaded color term

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by Samantha Critchell
AP Fashion Writer

NEW YORK (AP)—When you hear the word “nude,” what do you picture?

In fashion, it’s a common description of the shade a little darker than champagne, lighter than sand and perhaps with a hint of blush or peach.

But when Michelle Obama wore, in the words of designer Naeem Khan, a “sterling-silver sequin, abstract floral, nude strapless gown” to a state dinner at the White House—and it was reported as such—that sparked questions about the definition of nude and its relation, if any, to the wearer’s skin color.

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FIRST COUPLE—This Nov. 24, 2009 photo shows President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama before they welcome India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur to the State Dinner at the White House.

The Associated Press called Mrs. Obama’s dress color “flesh” and got immediate retorts: “Whose flesh?” one newspaper editor asked. “Not hers.” The description was revised to “champagne.”

“We talk of nude now, and there is no one color. It’s politically incorrect,” says Gale Epstein, creative director and co-founder of undergarment brand Hanky Panky. “There is a wide range for skin-tone colors. Human skin tones are a whole color palette unto themselves.”

Epstein says she realized years ago that the brand would need a full range of skin-tone shades. The middle ground of Hanky Panky’s dozen or so neutrals is probably taupe, which falls somewhere between the very light chai, which is also the best seller, and the much darker espresso.

It’s a popular color in decorating, says Anthony Noberini, design director for Iconix’s home brands, including Waverly, but, logically, the names are linked back to where the shade is being used. In the kitchen, for example, the neutrals are oatmeal or flax. When it comes to the increasingly popular coffee shades, Noberini says he’ll hear directly from consumers if they think his latte is too light or dark roast too dark.

They’re not unlike skin tones, he says, in that everyone thinks the color should reflect the one they personally are most familiar with.

It’s not unprecedented for color names to change with the tastes of society. In the 1960s, for example, Crayola changed its flesh color—which resembled white skin—to peach. The company attributes the switch on its website at least partially to the civil rights movement.

Celebrity stylist David Zyla breaks down the nude spectrum into five categories—whites, pinks, yellows, beiges and browns—and offers more than 30 narrowed-down names, including porcelain, tawny beige and toasted golden brown.

“There is nothing on a woman more beautiful than having them wear their essence or skin tone,” says Zyla, author of “The Color of Style.” “It’s about the woman and this drape of fabric around her, not about a jeweled collar or puffed sleeve or big skirt.

“We’re in a place in fashion where women are wanting to express their own unique selves,” Zyla says. “This array of essence colors is very individual.”

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