On Thursday, August 28th 2014, President Barack Obama conducted a press conference in the White House. It had been a very grim week for the USA with an American being beheaded, the advance of ISIS had continued and a further crisis was developing in Ukraine. Nothing new in Obama talking to the press, and perhaps nothing new in the relentless tide of depressing and negative news….and yet something was very, very different.
The world’s most powerful man was wearing a tan suit. See the suit here!
I’ll say that again. The world’s most powerful man was wearing a tan suit. The press went into hysterics; Twitter was in meltdown and one Republican congressman was seen ranting his way into a frenzy on the topic. Fake Twitter accounts devoted to the suit were created almost instantly, and the most amusing of which that I read was a spoof Hillary Clinton account that tweeted ‘Hey Barack, welcome to my world’.
So the question has to be asked: who cares? Apparently a lot of people do. Does it matter what colour the President wears? Again, apparently so. As an image professional, whenever I talk about colour in the corporate environment it is positioned with a health warning because I’m anxious to avoid the eye rolling. And yet we need to be careful not to be too dismissive.
So why did Obama wearing a tan suit, cause such a furore? The simple answer is that, like it or not, colour is everywhere in our lives and it affects our mood, appetite and even our heart rate. We infer meaning, connection and emotion from colour. The presence of colour is directly relevant to the fabric of our social, political, cultural, historical and economic way of life. Colour is everywhere – literally.
We have ‘rules’ about colour, (all of which can be immediately contradicted depending on where you live, what you believe, and what you do, by the way). For example, don't wear white after Labour Day in the USA, don’t wear white to a wedding, you should always wear black to a funeral. The list goes on...
In the world of business, there is a reason why you don’t see many bright red or bright yellow trouser suits at work. The message behind the colour doesn’t fit with the choice of garment. The typical convention of formal business attire being a dark blue/grey or black suit with a white shirt/blouse is because it conveys authority and presence. Why is that? Quite simply because of the high colour contrast. Depth of colour when combined with lightness of colour is worn in Western society by a lot of professions who are perceived as authoritative (such as lawyers, police officers, judges, nurses, ward sisters) and so we associate this with authority and presence.
The reason why Obama caused a furore by wearing a tan suit when he came into the White House press briefing was because the visual image didn’t align with the verbal message. There was a conflict; a confusion; a distraction.
It’s too easy to say none of this matters, but the reality is that is does. Who cares about colour? We all do.