One of fashion’s most recent trends is a return to the basics. Neutral earth tones, once a seemingly boring style choice, have become well-put-together chic. Online stores have created front-page collections of cozy chocolates and crisp creams. TikTok and Instagram fashion influencers show off their beige thrift-store hauls or their DIY caramel-dyed clothes. At the center of it all, that long-unassuming color: brown.
There cannot be a conversation about brown clothing without first discussing its racialized background. I remember throughout my early childhood that the general consensus was that brown was an ugly color. I am a white woman, so I cannot speak to the experience of Black and brown people in this situation. I do have brown eyes and hair, and I remember hating them intensely because of how often other kids would compare them to poop. Maybe anal-retentive children are simply preoccupied with feces, but any mention of brown was just: poop, poop, and more poop. I can’t imagine how this would affect people with brown skin. There is also an undeniable class dynamic with brown clothing; brown is often a color of choice for work uniforms, perhaps most famously for UPS workers. Pre-industrial clothes were often neutral brown colors because manufacturers lacked the dyes necessary to color the clothes; in the same vein, colorful clothes were more expensive than neutral ones. I remember reading many classic childhood books in which the protagonists complain about wearing drab, faded gingham dresses. In fact, I don’t think I even owned any brown clothes growing up, and I’m not the only one.
I have brown eyes, but my brother has blue eyes. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Mendelian knowledge would know, then, that one of my parents has blue eyes and the other has brown, making me a heterozygous carrier. My father is the brown-eyed one, Jewish, tan. He often told me how his mother doted on his blue-eyed baby brother, who was so much more gentile-looking, so much more conventional, more cherubic. For my young Jewish father, growing up in the years after the Holocaust, the conflict between brown eyes and blue eyes was not only an aesthetic preference but a measure of worth, of the difference of life or death. Every time I whined about wanting lighter-colored eyes, my father would bark at me from his leather armchair as if I had spoken some great evil. He would wag at me that brown eyes were, in fact, incredibly beautiful, and rich, and like chocolate. I loved chocolate.
This led to a period of maybe a year in elementary school where I convinced myself that my favorite color was brown. I remember even asking my mother to paint my bedroom brown. Maybe I simply felt like being contrary, like having a different answer than everyone else when asked that classic third-grade question. But so it was, and so I would say brown, and blow raspberries when the kids around me yelled out, “like poop?!” Eventually, I gave in and made myself satisfied with that sweet good girl’s color — pink. It was not until the fashion trend of the past year that I began to think more critically about my own and others’ relationship with brown.
So, after so many years of being called ugly, why is brown currently in vogue? In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the fashion industry. Comfort became prioritized as people began seeing each other less and working from home. Home-based living accelerated the recent trend of minimalism, which has manifested in wardrobes of select, muted tones and few patterns. The focus on comfort has also coincided with the rising preference for natural-looking makeup and effortless layering. Maybe we just needed to grow up enough to stop talking about poop. Colors come in and out of style, but hopefully brown is here to stay.