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Feeling blue? Seeing red? You're so out of step

Design websites and lifestyle magazines will tell you this week that the "colour of the year" has been chosen by a panel of fashion experts. It is a shade of orange. This will lead to a set of lists of clothing and decor and nail polish that you can buy that incorporate this fashionable shade, based on the premise that 2012 will be basically an all-orange year.

You may note in passing that this story has been entirely manufactured by a corporation called Pantone that happens to make pigments, and that the colour selected as the hippest this year is of course one of theirs, and that it is very much in Pantone's interest to convince you that there is such a thing as a fashionable colour and that you would be inadequate if you didn't think of colour in terms of fashion, but no matter, it is still a fascinating story because we all want to think like that, really: We want something to encapsulate the current moment, something emotional rather than intellectual, concrete rather than theoretical, something like a colour.

The colour Pantone wants you to put on everything from your kitchen walls to your lips is called Tangerine Tango (Pantone No. 17-1463). The Pantone people based their choice on a survey of 100 fashion designers and stylists and buyers. They don't expose the panel of marketing gurus who came up with the name of the colour, which is of course as important as the shade itself. These invisible, powerful creators get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to brainstorm poetic phrases and then dissect, like the most advanced of academic semioticians, the connotations of each word.

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The point of releasing such a forecast now is to coincide with spring fashion shows (which did actually include a lot of orange) and to foreshadow the promotion of spring clothes in shops that is going to happen in a few short weeks. And this is why the chosen colour is so bright and springlike and its name so plosive and tripping and brisk (note not only the alliteration but the assonance, the repetition of the "a" sound). It's meant to be optimistic.

And why, of course, wouldn't one be optimistic about 2012? All the global wars have been peacefully resolved, financial markets are stable and the economies of Europe and the United States seem to give no cause for concern. It's a great time to shop!

But why does orange mean optimism? Funny thing: To a lot of researchers, it doesn't. A marketing guy was once rather disdainful to me about a novel of mine because it had an orange cover. He said that in his business orange is used to signal an inexpensive product or a deep discount – this is why Tide detergent boxes have always been orange. You do see orange more at the low end of the consumer experience: at Pizza Pizza, for example, or Price Chopper or Home Depot. Orange to me tends to mean queuing at a cash register under fluorescent light and listening to Patio Lanterns, which is quite the opposite of cheerful.

It's also a nostalgic colour: There were a lot of browns and burnt oranges in 1950s and 1960s design, and we're seeing them now romanticized in clothing-romance TV shows such as Mad Men or Pan Am. Last year's BBC drama series The Hour, the British answer to Mad Men, set in 1956, frequently has a yellowy-red hue to it – the bars in particular all seem to have orange shades over their lamps, and the drinkers carry amber drinks. It doesn't look luxurious. This show is constantly reminding one of the austerity of the era: the worn raincoats and the dripping hot-water heaters and the diet of chips and whisky.

If orange is the colour of price cuts and rationing, it's also the colour of agitation. Restaurants with orange walls do not intend you to linger over your coffee. Roadwork crews use it to signal danger and delay. It's not a colour you'd want to paint a hospital waiting room. Well, anyway, here's to the symbolism of fashion: tangoing the new year away in a burst of happy cheap frantic chemical tangerine.

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