Miuccia Prada planted the seeds in her spring 2007 collection, sending down the runway two satin dresses the moody purple-blue of Van Gogh's irises. Since then, fellow designers Marc Jacobs and Zac Posen have filled their lines with shades of it. Nike, the Gap and even Cadillac are sporting its finery. And Michelle Obama certainly got the memo. She wore it to her husband's nomination ceremony and final debate and on Larry King Live--as did, come to think of it, Mr. King.
On the off chance that it has escaped your notice, purple is having a moment. And while many may assume a sudden color explosion to be just another whim of fickle fashion, the analysts and anthropologists who study shifts in chromatic preferences see this particular manifestation--the purple proliferation--as a sign of our uncertain times.
Sartorially speaking, fall is almost always dominated by warm colors (think camel, winter white), so this season's abundance of purple--and a chilly blue one at that--is "very unusual," says Leatrice Eiseman, psychologist and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. The New Jersey--based company, which provides universal color standards for design industries and manufacturers worldwide, predicted two years ago that purple would be everywhere this fall. Eiseman sees the hybrid color as a reflection of "discontent and desire for change," a quarrel between cool blue (peace, hope) and warm red (passion, anger, turmoil).
That's one interpretation. Leslie Harrington, executive director of the Color Association, the oldest chromatic forecasting firm in the U.S., offers another. "The meaning of red and blue are so entrenched in our society," she says. "Purple is representative of not deciding." Which may explain why pundits from Keith Olbermann to Bill O'Reilly have been sporting purple ties during the election season.
Even antipurple people have gotten sucked in by the color's zeitgeistiness. "I always hated purple, and I hated people who were into purple," says Manhattan-based designer Thakoon Panichgul, a favorite of Michelle Obama's who in December will launch a collection at Target. "But it has an element of angst that I gravitated to this season."
Color has long functioned as a cultural mood ring. There was the rainbow cacophony that defined the free-love, footloose '60s and the avocados and vegetal yellows of the '70s, which style experts attribute to environmental empathy spawned by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Precisely how these trends catch on has always been hazy; the trail of bread crumbs is typically detectable only in hindsight. But there's big business in forecasting the color of the moment. A DuPont survey found that 39% of prospective car buyers would buy a completely different brand if unable to obtain their color preference.
Twice a year, Pantone holds a closed-door, highly secretive meeting in Europe, where the world's top cultural anthropologists, color psychologists--yes, such an occupation exists--and designers from the fashion, automotive and other industries share their highly attuned thoughts on color. Their semiannual consensus, one palette for spring and one for fall, is sold in bound copies by the hundreds for $750 a pop to companies ranging from Pottery Barn and KitchenAid to Ford.