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Why brown is so on trend in fashion and design

The natural color reminds people of being outside, one of the sweet reliefs of the last year.

A woman wearing brown cargo pants.
Patricia Wirschke, fashion blogger, art historian, and CEO, wearing brown in April 2021.
Mathis Wienand/Getty Images

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: Brown is having a renaissance. From deep chocolate to buttery toffee, brunette hues have returned from fashion exile to become one of the most sought-after shades of the year. Long considered dated, dull, and unsophisticated — especially when compared to fellow neutrals like black, white, and gray — the color seems to have rehabilitated its public image and emerged as a mainstay in the homes and wardrobes of celebrities, models, designers, and influencers. Even Gen Z is on board.

Where it is: The color, which is really a mixture made by combining red, yellow, and blue, was abundant this fall on the runaways of Brunello Cucinelli, Bottega Veneta, and Prabal Gurung. It has graced the Instagram feeds of celebrities, models, and influencers, including Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, and Bella Hadid. Burlywood and mocha tones have been embraced, from mainstream brands like Urban Outfitters and smaller luxury labels like Sandy Liang to home decor shops and indie ceramicists. On TikTok, thousands of Gen-Zers have posted videos of themselves hand-dyeing their entire wardrobes in warm, nutty hues — perhaps the most convincing sign that brown is in right now, as zoomers have emerged as something of a human litmus test for what’s cool nowadays.


I saw a girl dying her clothes brown now I’m the girl dying her clothes brown #brownclothes #brownconverse #dyingclothesbrown #dyingclothes #fyp

♬ Rasputin (7" Version) - Boney M.

Why you’re seeing it everywhere: It’s possible that we are living in an elaborate computer simulation programmed by people or beings who are running a process back to the 1970s — the most recent decade in which brown had a significant presence in the color palettes of American living rooms and closets. The more likely explanation, however, doesn’t require an understanding of quantum physics or proof of time travel, but a look at the current appetite for minimalism, sustainability, and natural beauty.

Brown has been waiting for its moment for quite some time — and the creamy, natural color has quietly come of age in the past year. It’s a blatant foil to the perky, bright, and highly saturated shades that seeped into the worlds of fashion, advertising, and decor in recent years. But after a year in which widespread disease, death, and social inequities tormented the global consciousness, leaning into muted colors may have only felt fitting. (Many people consider design and styling intrinsic to their self-expression.)

“It wouldn’t feel right to wear pink and purple given the year that we’ve had,” says Alyssa Coscarelli, a style influencer and former fashion editor at Refinery29, who is perhaps better known by her Instagram handle @alyssainthecity. “I went through my closet and got rid of a lot of the more showy, Fashion Week-type pieces and gravitated towards the sweatpants, the outdoor gear, the practical, the comfortable.”

New York-based designer Robert McKinley, whose eponymous studio is behind Montauk’s Surf Lodge and many Sant Ambroeus restaurants, suggests brown’s rebirth is rooted in a broader resurgence of earthy, toned-down neutrals.

“We came from a time where there were lots of jewel tones and really rich colors. People just get tired of it and want a 180 on something,” says McKinley. “There’s a kind of rebellion that happens.”

McKinley compared the pandemic to the financial crisis of 2008, which prompted a pushback against extravagant, embellished styles and an embrace of minimalism.

“It’s not bling. It’s not fancy. It’s accessible. Who can’t find something brown?” says Eve Ashcraft, a renowned color expert who famously helped Martha Stewart develop her inaugural paint collection based on the bluish-green hues of her chickens’ eggs. “There’s a kind of back-to-basics aspect of brown. It’s like the comfort food of color.”

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, millions of Americans lost their homes to foreclosures, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, and a generation of young people found the doors to the job market shut in their faces. More than a decade later, the world is again confronting a surreal crisis that has upended life as we know it, leaving people increasingly isolated and lonely, struggling financially, and itching for some semblance of normalcy, though what that means depends on who you ask. Along the way, it’s changed consumer behavior, boosting the sales of loungewear, ergonomic goods, and pajamas.

“The last year was totally overwhelming. If it could go wrong, it went wrong, and it went wrong in such a big way that you couldn’t even make it up,” Ashcraft tells me. “Brown has got to be one of the most underwhelming parts of the palette, and I think of it as a counterpoint. It’s neutral. It’s safe. There’s something decidedly understimulating about it and, to me, that makes perfect sense.”

Brown has been known to humankind since the earliest civilizations, but history suggests our relationship with it can be considered on and off at best. The color can be found in pre-historic tomb and cave paintings, on vases produced by the Greeks and Romans, and in oil paintings used during the Italian Renaissance. From the 16th century until the early 1900s, painters favored “mummy brown,” a burnt umber hue produced from the rendered remains of ground-up Egyptian mummies. The corporeal pigment is believed to have been used by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Eugène Delacroix.

Still, throughout history, the dark neutral has been used to symbolize modesty and simplicity, with members of the working class wearing plain clothes in browns and beiges, while nobles and aristocrats sported extravagant garments in deep blues, purples, and reds. In ancient Rome, the term for plebeians, or the urban poor, was “pullati,” which literally translates to “those dressed in brown.” In the Middle Ages, Franciscan monks donned espresso-colored robes as a tangible symbol of their vow of poverty.

The color became more widely used in the late 19th century, as major armies began outfitting their soldiers in khakis and light browns for camouflage amid the emergence of trench and aerial warfare. It was notoriously adopted in the 1920s by the Sturmabteilung (SA), or the “Brownshirts,” a paramilitary group attached to the Nazi Party in Germany.

Between the 1920s and 1940s, attitudes toward brunette shades became more positive, thanks in part to the proliferation of Art Deco, a design aesthetic that embraced taupes and creams, metal finishes, and bold geometric patterns. It was during this era that light, washed-out browns were praised as elegant, luxurious, and comforting. This didn’t last, and brunette hues quietly went out of fashion.

It’s not just history that has a tumultuous relationship with brown; science does, too. In 2009, a study found that, on average, people dislike the color because it’s often “strongly associated with objects they dislike (e.g., browns with feces and rotten food).”

“Although the present evidence is correlational, it seems unlikely that causality runs in the opposite direction,” wrote researchers Stephen Palmer and Karen Schloss. “If object preferences were caused by color preferences, then chocolate and feces should be similarly appealing because they are similar in color. Clearly, this is not the case.” (In other words, people find brown unappealing because it reminds them of poop; they don’t dislike poop because it is brown.)

In 2012, researchers in Australia deemed a shade of dark brown the “world’s ugliest color.” Their findings prompted roughly a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France, to pass legislation requiring all cigarette packages to be sold in the off-putting hue (Pantone 448 C) to discourage smoking.

John Maule, a color psychologist and researcher at the University of Sussex, notes that while studies have found brown is generally unpopular, individual color preferences are “flexible.” He explains, “If there are objects in your life that you like and they are a particular color, then that will boost your preference for that color across all circumstances.”

Maule suggests brown’s newly found coolness could be the result of people spending more time outdoors amid the pandemic, where they’re “experiencing more brown.” He says an individual is more likely to like a certain color (brown) the more enjoyment they receive from experiences with objects of that color (trees, leaves, dirt).

This has some precedent. Preference for earthy neutrals emerged from the shadows in the ’70s, as the hippie movement spawned widespread concern about the environment. The growing interest in conservation — coupled with a general rejection of materialism and consumerism — was reflected in many homes and closets at the time. Many kitchens featured an ochre and brown color palette combined with lots of natural woods and stones, while cinnamon-colored blouses and auburn leather knee-high boots were considered wardrobe staples.

Carter Altman, a young designer who runs his own label, Carter Young, alongside his day job designing menswear at a mainstream retailer, confirms the natural world has inspired fashion brands and designers. He says this can be seen with the surge of technical, outdoors-inspired clothing — like chunky hiking boots, fuzzy fleeces, and cloudy puffers —on the runways of high-end brands like Gucci and Prada.

The camping chic style, christened “gorpcore” in 2017 by the Cut, has even inspired collaborations between luxury labels and outdoor clothing companies, with Gucci teaming up with the North Face and Comme des Garçons partnering with the nearly 75-year-old trail shoe brand Salomon. The trend has prompted brands to embrace neutral earth tones, like browns, taupes, and greens, because they reflect natural elements.

“There’s a desire among a certain type of consumer to appear connected to nature,” explains Altman, who is a friend of this author. “Brown is a very utilitarian color. It’s economical. It’s more historically minded and easier to achieve by hand-dyeing techniques. It’s opposed to the traditional sex appeal that comes from bright colors or blacks as the grounding center of the wardrobe.”

Altman says trends like gorpcore have nudged the fashion industry to reckon with the environmental impact of mass production, as concerns about the health of the planet are at the heart of retailers like the North Face and Salomon. They’ve also inspired brands to minimize waste by leaning into eco-friendly materials, like organic and recycled fabrics, natural dyes, and deadstock materials (clothing inventory that didn’t sell) — similar to the ’70s.

Ethical and sustainable fashion production has been championed by designers like Altman, as well as Evan Kinori, Emily Adams Bode, and Camiel Fortgrens. Kinori, a San Francisco-based designer, creates his clothing by hand in small, numbered batches, and Altman aims to reimagine classic American silhouettes using deadstock textiles and natural textures. Adams Bode constructs pieces from Victorian quilts, grain sacks, and bed linens, while Fortgens produces deliberately unpolished, gender-neutral styles using sustainable materials. The designers’ finished products aren’t cheap, but they’re intended to be timeless looks that can be worn over and over.

“What they project is not so much the color brown, but the idea of soberness and interconnectivity with the natural environment,” Altman says of the color trend, which he calls a “return to nature, a rejection of screens and fine spaces.” The end product, he explains, feels “closer to the raw materials,” and tries to avoid the wasteful manufacturing processes of fast fashion, which typically include outsourcing production, the use of toxic materials, and a focus on quantity rather than quality.

“True luxury now is feeling closer to the source of production,” he tells me. “For so long, we’ve prized the idea of removal and standardization as true luxury. Is it imported? Where’s it from? How far away can I get this luxury item brought to me from that no one else can have it? Now, the paradigm has turned.”

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