Why the world of fashion is moving towards 'neutral' territory

From safe to showstopper, beige is enjoying a fashion renaissance

In 2002, astronomers from the Johns Hopkins University studied the light from over 200,000 galaxies as it reaches Earth to arrive at the average colour of the universe. They found it was a brownish white beige and called it Cosmic Latte. In 2019, if we were to survey the colour of fashion as it reaches earth from the runways of the world’s fashion capitals, we might find a similar story; beige is all-encompassing.

Whether light and buttery or in richer tones, beige has recently predominated collections, from Dior, Stella McCartney and Tibi, to labels who’ve long been associated with neutral tones, like Burberry, Chloe and Max Mara.

Admittedly, this classic neutral never really went away, but what has made it click so strongly with designers and influencers in the past season? Could it be the same reason that a de-cluttering expert like Marie Kondo is a global phenomenon? We’re bombarded with choice and saturated with advertising images, exhorting us to be better versions of ourselves. Within this maelstrom of contradictory messages, a uniform of sorts—something which offers social or workplace appropriateness, but also unquestionable style—becomes more appealing. This brings us to our next question: what qualifies as beige exactly? Beige originates from the French word for the colour of natural, un-dyed wool. However, in its new iteration, it’s the catch-all term for a wide-ranging palette of shades of anything from ivory to light white brown to pale greenish grey. Its synonyms include fawn, pale brown, buff, sand, oatmeal, camel, café au lait, ecru, ivory, taupe, stone, natural. Just don’t call it tan (because that’s a stretch too far), or nude (because that assumes a specific skin colour as the default). So why not just use the term neutral?

You see the term beige, in and of itself, has historical connotations that make it ripe for fashion’s love of reinvention. You can’t talk about it without talking about beige’s historical relationship to the trench coat. The military uniform of World War II, the trench later became a staple of men’s, then women’s wardrobes (that’s also where beige’s conflation with khaki occurs). So, beige is inherently rooted in ideas of uniformity and practicality. Beige was also closely associated with the 1970s, which as a fashion period, has infiltrated catwalks and interiors over the last decade, with its muted hues and folk craft leanings. The 1970s also saw the growth of the environmental movement and a reaction against the psychedelic hippie anarchy of the 1960s. Seventies’ fashion emphasised avocado green and muted earthy tones as part of its ecological and homespun leanings. However, as the seventies gave way to the brasher eighties, beige gained a reputation as a safe non-colour, leading to the vernacular “beige people”, implying safe, conservative and (god forbid!) suburban. Yet, as we know, fashion is inherently cyclical in nature, continually re-inventing what has gone before for what lays ahead. Nowadays it’s precisely that safeness of beige, it’s associations with bourgeois respectability, that has allowed its re-calibration as a powerful statement of rebellion in this age of noisy excess.

Now we have young brands including Bodice, A.W.A.K.E, Rejina Pyo, Mansur Gavriel and Peter Do, who have also tuned into the nonchalance and quiet authority of beige. They are mining its classicism but making it newly relevant, with oversized proportions, head-to-toe styling, and innovative details. For example, Bodice’s cinnamon-tone jacket and pleated kick flare pants are punctuated with white and sharp binding, so too is one of the brand’s signature fluid trenches. Mansur Gavriel and Rejina Pyo also have classic trench options that balance edgy design details with the cool effortless of tonal dressing. Peter Do excels at this approach, his collections provide a masterclass in using head-to-toe tonal separates as a foil for individual and arresting statement dressing.

After all, beige is an attitude, made all the more powerful when worn without any distractions; like a uniform that can free up the mind and time for things that matter.

Photographs: Soumya Iyer; Styling: Akshita Singh, assisted by: Dhvani Jhaveri (Styling); Hair and make-up: Tenzin Kyizom/Inega; Models: Suzanne Nayana, Urvashi Umrao/ Anima creative Management.