Fruit. Vitamin C. Sick. Sickly sweet. Peach. Fuzzy. Mould. Decay. Autumn. Leaves painted terracotta, a crisp blanket of golden rot. Earthy. Rust. Cinnamon. Clove. Spices. Spicy. Pumpkin Spice. Spiked warm liquid, creamy and smooth. Mushy pumpkins line the streets. Every year they are gutted, their goo discarded as garbage and replaced by dancing tea lights. Can you feel it? they ask with eyes smiling menacingly. I nod and slip them a wink. Fallen leaves, decaying, are swept to the gutter. Fruit in mesh bags, bought in bulk, cleanse colds. We pop pills and watch orange powder fizz in glasses half empty. A sour taste travels to my tongue, my skin starts to feel rubbery and itchy, my throat feels full. Something is stuck. I spit…a pip. All is not as it seems.
Colour seeps through the seasons and we cash in on its change: Black. October. Orange. November. Tango leaves go turmeric. Blood orange fades to a sickly citrine. And then everything turns red, gold, with a little bit of green. A new year a new you: beige nails, grey skies, the hope of snow, snowdrops, a blank slate. Slick with grease, hues are shined until they sell the seasonal vision. Red as Rudolph’s nose. White as untouched snow. Black as a witch’s hat. And orange. The consumption of orange is always deliberate. Whether it be the creamier colourings and autumnal delicacies of terracotta and cinnamon, or the feisty fiesta and hot neon that saturated runways, Instagram and protests alike throughout 2018. Named “Solar” or “Safety”, the latest popularisation of orange is a bold hue: fashionable and political and sellable.
Back in 2016 the commercialised comeback of bright orange was predicted. Colour director at WGSN, Jane Boddy, foresaw Solar Orange as becoming hot in 2018. Solar, sun, summer. “Psychotropical”! “Synthetic”! “Hyperreal perception of nature”! “Artificially skewed”! This new hot colour had power. As solar orange seeped into 2018 spring/summer and autumn/winter collections alike, fashion heads rumoured it to be the new millennial pink, re-identifying it as “Safety Orange”. It’s new found fashionable fame sent people into a frenzy—orange? Neon? Everyone’s least favourite colour is now the colour. Bright orange has lived a life of specificity in order to be successful; a divisive colour worn for a purpose; a colour of identification; a colour for making a statement. Once upon a time the colour with no name; then the colour of the fruit; then the colour of warnings and city workers and labourers; government regulated; a symbol of Gun Control in America; and, last year, Safety Orange re-emerged as a slicked shiny version of its former self, appearing on the runways of Fenty (SS18), Calvin Klein (AW18), Ashish (SS19), Loewe (SS19), not to mention the possible premature Yeezy head-to-toe neon flash of Kim Kardashian-West.
As with all trends, orange’s moment in the spotlight marked a shift in the global psyche as translated through aesthetic—round and round we go. And it is not over yet. The menswear AW19 shows have already prescribed a heavy dose of the hue: designers such as Bobby Abley, Iceberg, Loewe, MGSM, Pronounce, Sacai, and Versace have left oozing sticky juice all over the New York, London, Milan and Paris catwalks. This colour seems thicker, rounder, bursting at the skin with bitter sweetness. And despite a few tentative attempts—oranges that are unsure of their place on the citrus scale, more yellow than tango—2019 (so far) seems to be excluding insipid additives and fading skins from the commodity mix. On offer is a full orange—alive! But it is still safety orange: a pip lodged in the throat. Tango. Mango. Fire. Artificial. Attention-seeking. A warning. Regardless of its material manifestations or any attempts of skewing its hue, 2019 orange is haunted by Safety Orange’s history of metamorphosis from function to fashion.
The hues of harvest and halloween are easy to swallow. They are orange diluted, squash/ed. Forced down our throats: creamy and soft, it slips and slides. Hmmm. And we have always lapped, licked, loved it. But the punchier palettes get stuck in the oesophagus. Something not quite right. Safety orange’s commercial success is a marker of aesthetic appropriation in the name of capital and political unease. Stolen and distorted, controlled and commodified. Synthetic safety. I spit it up. Orange is awkward. It has zero chill. It has a unique ability to make my skin feel waxy and to instantly induce nausea, like smelling and tasting and swallowing something super acidic all at once. To make my retinas strain and sag, to get to me, under me, in me. Eye-sore. That is its superpower. Like, it is undeniably magical. It is freaky and creepy. Unnerving. Nervous. It is historically uncool. A marker of capital and classism. And now it is being readily consumed at pumped up price points and worn by the digital elite, reproduced as symbolically diminutive. Or as twitter profile @colorschemez so perfectly describes, it is a “fatter orangeish”. (—ish!)
I’m dissatisfied with the pulsing Health & Safety psychotropic synthetic story that is being spun. I’m dissatisfied that orange’s history is being trampled, swept up by capital’s commodity cycles and now redistributed at a larger, but thinner, scale than ever before. Made so cool it is now very uncool. Orange is a divisive colour, so bold and brazen it demands attention, used throughout history to magnify political and cultural tensions. Unlike blue and red, orange is an oddball, used to say something specific. It is Gun Control, workwear, labour, safety, synthetic, and psychotropic millennial cool—sure. But! Orange has an undercurrent of alternative tales and sickening brilliance. Orange is affective. It has a history of grit and discomfort and emotion that is so vital to its contemporary consideration. That is why orange matters to me; why I wear it and love it despite its sickly superpower; and why stories like those I re-tell below hold more power than the current commercial narrative. These tales celebrate and critique orange as a slippery and sticky colour of emotion, transformation, and the un/real. Orange not as a low-level hype beast hue, but orange as an underestimated stimulant and, importantly, mutant.
Politics and Performance
I am Kurious Oranj. Spin. Spinning. Brutal punk. Ballerina poise. It’s poison, orange’s toxicity bleeds into the sing-song shouts and serpentine sequences. Bodies thrashing, heads banging. It’s offbeat. It’s a carnival! This is footage of The Fall performing ‘Big New Prinz’, a song from the album ‘I am Kurious Oranj’, for Michael Clark’s ‘I am Curious Orange’ ballet. Mark E. Smith’s gruff gasps open the set. An orange haze, then drums, guitar. It’s disorientating. Arms start swinging. Dancers drape over one another. Entangled. Their tango forms glisten, the costumes are full baroque glam rock. It’s dizzying. The extraordinaire Michael Clark wears a black wig and balances on crutches, his body suspended in the air. I hold my breath. Breathtaking. It’s a performance of discipline and chaos. There’s a giant backdrop of an orange saturated Westminster Bridge and Big Ben, vandalised with a sad smiley face and (I think) a packet of fries. Citrus fruit dances across the checkerboard stage. So beautiful. Punk-rock can be hostile and this is a socio-political soundcloud of subversion and queer politics. The Fall’s album, ‘I am Kurious Oranj‘, the ballet’s soundtrack, sure packs an aural anti-sound punch. The performance as one moving sensory creature is anti-elegant. An experiment against tradition for the creation of new. Orange swans splinter all straight-forward expectations of ballet. Oh, and there’s the spectacular Leigh Bowery who, as well as producing the costumes, appears writhing among the dancers. Together: the jagged sounds, awkward elegance, and outlandish visuals of ‘I am Curious Orange’ encapsulate the grotesque and sickening magic of the colour. On a sparkling stage, with equal measures of grit and glam and grace, is orange’s rightful place.
Orange is viscerally triggering. Full of feeling. Like when I’m about to cry and I swallow and swallow but the sensation wont go away. Tears never fall. I swallow again. I touch: swollen. My throat rips open to reveal a hard smooth pip lodged in the middle. Eve’s eggfruit. It is a feeling of suppression and emotional shame. Vulnerable. Vacuous smiling. It’s a specific melancholy. Triggered at the strangest times, sometimes. I’ve always visualised this feeling as orange. A Wes Anderson orange. ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ is washed in it; Margot’s fur coat. The grand foyer and floor of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, set against purple uniforms (another colour that’s always reminded me of sick); the combination is a parody of good taste. A writer I love wholly, Kathy Acker, understands the genius of parody. Those who’ve read her books know what I mean. “The bed, rarely made, floats in a room painted orange with big violet stars” (an extract from ‘After Kathy Acker’ by Chris Kraus). Imagining Kathy writing in that room, well, it makes sense. A fantastically lurid cave to create fantasy of equal measure. Oh! ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’. The whole film’s colour palette is ill, but it’s the sunset scenes that gets me most. Anderson-made almost perfect orange. It’s a radioactive sky of sadness. Like the colour of Divine’s stale hair in ‘Pink Flamingos’. Or the poisonous gilled Jack O’Lantern Mushroom. Both are toxic and transfixing yet typical. I’m not sure if I’m explaining this properly, I’m not sure I can. The way this orange twists my stomach, it is mind-altering and troubling. It’s the same orange associated with the sacral chakra: the energy centre of our emotions, self-worth, pleasure and creativity. It’s true. Trauma has, over my short lifetime, built up in my hips. Everyday I try and try to stretch out the shame.
Our histories haunt us in mysterious and inexplicable ways. Ghosts can live under our skin and in our bones. A colour, for example, can become a phantom. Orange is for sure ghostly. It has a supernatural sheen. A hallucinogenic quality: its energy is intense and eerie. I feel this when reading Frank O’Hara’s “Oranges: 12 Pastorals”, a series of twelve poems written during the summer of 1949, within which the word orange never materialises. Nor does O’Hara allude to the fruit or the colour. He acknowledges this later in his 1956 poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter”: “My poem / is finished and I haven’t mentioned / orange yet.” Its absence is phantasmic. Although it is a different line that radiates the special anxiety I associate with orange: “There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life. Days go by.” It is terrible, life. But also beautiful. In the poem, O’Hara expresses an air of uncertainty regarding one’s craft, questions the artist and the poet and the distant intimacy in-between them. (“As intimate as rotting rice”). In “Oranges: 12 Pastorals” O’Hara writes of life and decay: the nature of nature. Beauty. Destruction. Love. Memory. Absence. He writes of orange as the cryptic colour it is—without writing about it at all. Orange is a master of evasiveness. It is like a colour that is already dead.
Affect in Art
Recently I came across an artwork titled “Hate Brain” by Munro Galloway. It is of a person dressed in a “power” suit, their head consumed by fire—well, that’s one perspective. The artist describes it as “a caricature [made of] a complicated mix of anger, humor, and empathy”. I get it. That feeling about one’s sense of self: maybe grandiosity or being simply overwhelmed. Or a hothead. Hate Brain’s are all around us; they always have been. The flow of lava juice that comes leaking, spilling out. Anger or arrogance or confusion or suppression—it can’t be controlled. For whatever reason, a moment or a feeling becomes enlarged and protrudes from the human shell as…orange. Spreading over skin. Wild fire.
I’m sad now. Staring at a picture of a pumpkin, rotting, atop a stool. It’s a photograph taken in one in the rooms of a five-story house installation. The exhibition is titled “Die Hexe” German for “The Witch”. The artist is Alex Da Corte. The walls are floor to ceiling tango, pumpkin and citrine gingham. Wooden floor. Two rugs. The smaller of which has an unidentifiable and foreboding object bulging underneath. It smells stuffy. A mix of polish and vintage dust. There’s an augmented rocking chair and a stool with multiple legs. This is where the pumpkin rests, decaying from the inside, on top of a stool modelled after the one Kurt Cobain used. Resting against a door, inside, he committed suicide. Resting. Rest. Ghosts fill the room. Time slows, as O’hara pens: “Days go by”. Terrible. Orange and life and death and after? “This shift is constantly occurring within all the stuff around us and within us…We, too, can be urgent, fecund beings with specific purposes and goals and lose that target in time without realizing it,” shares Da Corte. Inside this orange shell is a sense of loss. Lost. Losing words. Orange is adept at, contrary to its new popular identity, creating the illusion of safety. Here, home is a haunted house. Ghosts are orange. Orange is ghostly. It’s everywhere, I just didn’t realise until now. We are surrounded by Orange Ghosts, like pythons, shedding their (our!) skin. Evolving.
Remember that Alicia Keys song? This girl is on fire / Looks like a girl, but she’s a flame / So bright, she can burn your eyes / Better look the other way / You can try but you’ll never forget her name. Girls on fire: in these stories the witches do not burn. Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Cleopatra’s (Elizabeth Taylor) orange dress (1963). 2010 Cher. Pippi Longstocking! 2015 Rihanna. 2015 SZA. Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) in ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992). Prudence in the Beetlejuice TV series. Hayley Williams (Paramore). Lil’ Kim. Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) in ‘Fifth Element’ (1997). Merida in ‘Brave’ (2012). Stories about girls who have some kind of power or strength through subversion. Here, I’m reminded of a picture. It is part of American artist Cindy Sherman’s 1981 Centrefold Series, a collection of anti-double spread double spreads. The most popular and pricey of them all is, interestingly, one soaked in orange: “Untitled #96”. A self-portrait: “Ms. Sherman lies dreamily on a linoleum floor in a sweater and skirt, a thirty-something single clutching a ”Personals” ad torn from a newspaper” wrote the New York Times. There is something here. This orange. A middle finger to the male gaze, to sexism and submission. A history: girls on fire blazing in a sucker punch orange. This is the orange. A pip, I swallow. And, this time, it goes down.
Mollie Elizabeth Pyne is a freelance writer and Masters student at Goldsmiths, University of London, specialising in feminist and queer theory, body studies, and literature. They are currently based in Devon. Sporadically tweets @bittter0cean.