Notes on Culture: The Irony of Pastels

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Will Cotton’s “Candy Clouds (Hannah),” 2008. Credit Oil on linen, copyright Will Cotton, courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Last September, an earthquake southeast of Mexico City killed over 350 people, disastrous hurricanes made landfall in the Caribbean and President Trump threatened to annihilate North Korea. Social media has made well-informed consumers — including of current events — of us all, and we no longer have the luxury of not knowing the bad news. Savviness, once a virtue, has become something closer to an obligation.

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From left: Michael Kors and Loewe spring/summer 2018. Credit Firstview

So how do you express in clothing your desire to not know? Black seems too obvious — and too resigned. But pastels, once the province of demure cashmere twin-sets and enameled automatic kitchen appliances, of petits fours, babies and the housewives who rock them, are announcing themselves as an unexpected alternative, filling the splash pages of millennial-run websites and dominating the spring collections. In New York last fall, Michael Kors sent a flaxen-haired model down the runway in a double-breasted suit of matte periwinkle, and in Paris, at Loewe, Jonathan Anderson showed slouchy dresses made of color-blocked, sherbet-hued silk: pistachio, strawberry, Creamsicle, custard. But this is not merely escapist dressing. Pastels’ atavistic connotations — of traditional femininity and nostalgia for a pre-Voting Rights Act America — have been subsumed, like so much else, by ironic self-awareness and maybe even by a subtle sense of tragedy. (No woman could see the dusky pink and pale blue handbags at Tod’s, studded with rubber pebbles, and not think of the birth control pills tucked away — for now — in her own purse.) Wearing pastels feels like reappropriating a slur. “Who’s the naïf now?” they seem to whisper, while remaining unsure whether anyone can hear. Red may be the color of all-out rebellion, but pastels, which by definition are a dilution of pigment, can provide a sneakier kind of insurrection. Sometimes, there’s no better way to disguise the taste of poison than with a sugar coating.

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