millennial pink is over! long live flame scarlet

We need to paint the world red more than ever.

by Kyle MacNeill
02 October 2019, 7:15am

Forget tone of voice -- voices of tones are just as important. "Colour is a language we use to communicate and express [ourselves]," says Laurie Pressman.

She should know; as Vice President of the Pantone Colour Institute, she spends her time “combing through all of the different information" their global team has put together to capture the colour palette of our times. Eras can be defined by certain shades, and for SS20 -- our near future -- they’ve chosen, among others, a burning, hazardous, bloody red.

This red is Pantone 18-1662 TCX -- labelled as Flame Scarlet. Laurie notes enthusiastically, “You are seeing this shade everywhere.” Lizzo slayed with a lip-smacking dress at the VMAs, Marc Jacobs’s SS20 collection was full of it, Virgin enlisted Gareth Pugh to design scarlet uniforms, Sonam Kapoor’s wardrobe is stuffed with it and Adidas are whacking it on their trainers.

Previously, it was ‘millennial pink’ that was splashed around by the paint-bucket load. The reason it filled palettes was because -- well -- it was so palatable. Quiet, comforting and pretty, it was a blanket backdrop for the good life made virtual -- brunches, cocktails, floofy dogs and picture perfect chocolate. It was powerfully unassuming, even slightly ironic, but also designed to make you assume that Everything Was Going To Be Okay. The Mood Booster Spotify playlist of colours.

So why have our runways now been rendered red? “People today want to be seen,” Laurie sums up simply. It’s certainly true when it comes to social media. Instagram now has 1 billion monthly users, its algorithms are more intricate and far fewer people are engaging with influencers’ posts. It’s only going to get more saturated, too. After all, one in five children want to become an influencer. The million-dollar advertising question, then, is why does red scream louder than pink? Colour theory -- a branch of the visual arts that in part studies the relationship between colours and humans -- can help us with this. The most famous treatise on red was written back in 1976 by neuropsychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey. Titled The Colour Currency of Nature, it argued that red has a “special place” in our technicolour world.

Humphrey gave a myriad of reasons for red’s importance. Red light, he argued, stimulates the most emotional arousal; increases blood pressure; is rated in subjective tests as the most “powerful” colour; is the first colour word to enter our vocabulary and is the most resistant to vision damage. This all stems from the fact that red is the “most common colour signal in nature”, for two reasons. Firstly, it stands out against common backgrounds of “green foliage” or “blue sky”. Secondly, it is our most “readily available” colour, via blood.

Unlike millennial pink, red is evolutionarily built into you as a vital, vivid, visceral colour (unless you’re Kitten Kay Sera). We’re programmed to clock it. But, crucially, part of its power comes from its many connotations. As Humphrey puts it: “Its potential to disturb lies in this very ambiguity.” Red may signal sex -- cherry-red lipsticks; throbbing, tumescent genitalia -- but also danger (blood), shame (blushing) and anger (turning red). There’s nothing black-and-white about red, basically. But whatever it means, it always means something.

Drawing on the natural power of red, of course, isn’t new. Tudor women famously wore red ochre to stain their lips and cheeks to appear more attractive. Neanderthals used the same red ochre dye to etch the first cave paintings, and start language itself. In political history, red has always been associated with the left: from the Communist Party to Labour’s red rose (‘red Ed’, anyone?) It’s easy to see why.

Trace this to contemporary aesthetics, and it’s the same story. Red is rife, Facebook's red notifications firing neurotransmitters like dopamine to get us clicking. YouTube, Tinder, Netflix, Instagram all burn brightly on our screen displays. Just Eat, Burger King, McDonalds and Five Guys all lure our saliva-stained lips, exploiting the fact that red increases our blood pressure. How? Well, increased blood pressure leads to increased appetite (and you face-first in a bowl of ramen).

Fashion, too, has always had red at its core. Remember the explosion of the red dress on the (you guessed it) red carpet? Jessica Rabbit hues have always proved popular, attracting the paparazzi lenses in the same way that it attracts the human eye. So what’s new?

Styles have changed, for sure. It’s Flame Scarlet that we’re seeing more of these days, rather than lighter rose, block red or candy shades. It’s deeper, richer, a blend of carnelian and scarlet that doesn’t just ask you to pay attention, but to take note too. But it’s the substance behind the style that’s more interesting. There’s a pretty shared perception that our world right now is facing disaster. Global events are such a mind-fuck, truth such a chimera, that it’s nearly impossible to know what on earth to do. As Laurie told us earlier, we’re living in an era right now where we want to be heard. But we also want to be listened to. Flame Scarlet holds an urgency that allows for this. It’s far from mundane or monotone, cut from the same cloth as a jet-black or a deep indigo, but drawing on red’s natural power.

It’s no coincidence that Flame Scarlet is all over the totalitarian, dystopian, eco-nightmare of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaids -- coerced to have sex due to a generally infertile population -- are forced to wear red. Talking to Vanity Fair about its significance, the costume designer Anne Crabtree explained that the exact shade of red “exemplified a kind of visual lifeblood”.

In the same way that the story has had a resurgence via the TV series due to its prescient themes of environmental disaster and society’s treatment of women, its shades are colour-matched to the tones of our time. The fabric of clothes reflects the fabric of society, and right now our society is plunging into the red. In the two years since the explosion of Millennial Pink, we’ve had Greta Thunberg inspire millions to protest against the climate change epidemic, Boris Johnson becoming PM and racism rise dramatically. The use of Flame Scarlet does not just mirror our situation, though. It’s a call to action to change it. It projects as much as it reflects, evokes as much as it invokes. It’s the epitome of life imitating art. If we can be bolder, more emotive, more urgent in visual culture, we can in reality, too.

We don't need millennial pink anymore. We need the energy of something more daring when it comes to our visuals in fashion, design and advertising. Being passionate has never been more important. We’re sending the world a message -- and we won’t let it leave us on red.

millennial pink