December 28, 2006

On the trail of "the new black" (and "the navy blue")

In our occasional roundups of those phrasal formulae we call snowclones, one of the most fertile templates has been "X is the new Y" — most recently discussed in three posts by Arnold Zwicky (1, 2, 3), but extending back to the early days of snowclonology (1, 2, 3, 4; see also this pioneering post by Glen Whitman). The Wikipedia page on snowclones even gives "X is the new Y" as its very first example. Wikipedians and some other observers have suggested that the original model for this snowclone is the supposed fashion-industry motto, "Pink is the new black," which first got extended to "X is the new black" before becoming abstracted even further as "...the new Y."

So, to whom can we attribute what Arnold Zwicky calls "the ur-New-Y expression"? Turning again to Wikipedia:

The phrase is commonly attributed to Gloria Vanderbilt, who upon visiting India in the 1960s noted the prevalence of pink in the native garb. She declared that "Pink is the new black", meaning that the color pink seemed to be the foundation of the attire there, much like black was the base color of most ensembles in New York.

The attribution of "pink is the new black" to Vanderbilt has been dutifully repeated in a number of places in recent months, including The Ottawa Citizen, The Taipei Times,, Eric Zorn's Chicago Tribune blog, and right here on Language Log. There's only one small problem with the Vanderbilt attribution: it's completely unsubstantiated. It looks like Diana Vreeland should get the credit instead, though she didn't quite say "pink is the new black" either.

[Update, 12/29: The Wikipedia entry for "the new black" has already been revised to give Vreeland credit rather than Vanderbilt. The uncorrected version is archived here.]

The attribution to Vreeland first popped up on the Wikipedia page for "the new black" in a revision on Sep. 13, 2005 by "DropDeadGorgias." The source for this information is uncredited, but some more digging finds that "DropDeadGorgias" wrote a post on on Jan. 22, 2004 mentioning a Guardian headline, "Gay is the new black." (The post was about early reports of the filming of Brokeback Mountain.) In the comments section, "HWheel" offered this explanation for the origin of "the new black":

In the swinging '60's, Gloria Vanderbilt visited India. Everybody was wearing wild colors, but there was lots of pink. She said "Pink is the new black." It's now a fashion cliche: "_________ is the new black," which changes every year.
I got this from the one-woman play, "Full Gallop," which was the wit and spirit of Ms. Vanderbilt.

So it looks like "DropDeadGorgias" took the commenter's word for it and amended the Wikipedia page for "the new black" to say that the expression is "commonly attributed to Gloria Vanderbilt." Unfortunately, this bit of information fails Wikipedia's usual standards of verifiability. Nobody else attributes "the new black" to Vanderbilt, except for people relying on the faulty Wikipedia entry.

A little more research zeroes in on the source of the misinformation. That one-woman play referred to by the commenter, "Full Gallop," is not about Gloria Vanderbilt — it's actually about Diana Vreeland. It's easy to see how one could get the two women confused: they're both chic fashion divas and high-society types with last names beginning with V. Vreeland, however, is the one who evidently deserves a place in the annals of snowclonology.

So what did Vreeland actually say? Turns out she didn't call pink "the new black," or even "the black of India," but rather "the navy blue of India." (Note also that calling pink "the navy blue of India" is actually more akin to snowclones of the "X is the Y of Z" model.) Vreeland's original wording is preserved in the script of "Full Gallop" by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson (published in 1997 but first performed in 1995 with Wilson in the role of Vreeland):

Actually, pale-pink salmon is the only color I cannot abide.
Although, naturally, I adore PINK. I love the pale Persian pinks of the little carnations of Provence, and Schiaparelli's pink, the pink of the Incas.
And, though it's so vieux jeu I can hardly bear to repeat it, pink is the navy blue of India.

This passage, like others in the script, is taken verbatim from Vreeland's 1984 memoirs, D.V. (p. 106 of the 1997 Da Capo Press edition, which incidentally has a foreword by Mary Louise Wilson). By that time, near the end of her life, she seemed quite bored with her famous catchphrase, considering it so vieux jeu (lit. 'old game') that she could barely stand repeating it. Indeed, a Nov. 28, 1980 profile of Vreeland in the Washington Post referred to "Pink is the navy blue of India" as "her most frequently quoted statement."

The quote had, in fact, been traveling with Vreeland ever since she burst into the public eye as the editor of Vogue in early 1962. In March of that year, Carrie Donovan wrote a long New York Times profile of Vreeland that included this anecdote:

A designer tells of the time he showed Mrs. Vreeland a swatch of bright pink silk of Eastern influence.
"I ADORE that pink!" she exclaimed. "It's the navy blue of India."
("Diana Vreeland, Dynamic Fashion Figure, Joins Vogue," New York Times, Mar. 28, 1962, p. 30)

In her 2002 biography Diana Vreeland, Eleanor Dwight identifies Donald Brooks as the designer who shared the story with the reporter. (Vogue photographer Norman Parkinson also recalls Vreeland's saying the line to him, as recounted in his 1983 book Fifty Years of Style and Fashion, reviewed here.) There must have been something particularly striking about Vreeland's bold formulation, since it would often be repeated in profiles of her — as in "The Vreeland Vogue," a Time Magazine piece from May 10, 1963.

Some claim that Vreeland's comment was inspired by a trip to India (as the Wikipedia entry claims was true of Vanderbilt), but I haven't found any evidence of this. I doubt this was the case, since in D.V. she writes that as a fashion editor she herself didn't travel, instead living vicariously through international fashion shoots: "I couldn't take off for a few weeks to see, say, a bit of India. But I could send groups of photographers, editors, and models, and they'd be there the next day." So I'd imagine that she came to the conclusion that "pink is the navy blue of India" based on one of these shoots that she arranged from the comfort of her New York office.

But when did "the new black" enter the picture? I have yet to find any usage before the 1980s, when various colors were anointed "the new black":

Colors are slated to be somber and muted, say most of the designers who previewed their collections for Fashion83. For example, Ferre says gray is the new black. (Los Angeles Times, Mar. 4, 1983, p. V6)

"There is a tremendous range to the color brown," says [textile and color specialist Elaine] Flowers, who expects brown to look updated because of the way it is paired with other colors, and used in varied textures. "It is the new black." (Washington Post, Mar. 15, 1984, p. D9)

Navy is the new black in Paris; in London and Milan, brown is the preferred alternative. (Washington Post, Apr. 3, 1984, p. C6)

"We're very strongly navy for the season," he [sc. merchandising agent Joseph Martinez] said. "Navy is the new black." (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 1984, p. IV15)

Nearly 4,000 fashion professionals filled the New York Hilton's ballroom for two runway shows spotlighting fall trends: trumpet skirts, swing dresses, styles the moderator said were ''for the woman whose bank account is equal to her self-assurance,'' belts (''the accessory of the year''), velvet, gray (''the new black''), boots and big coats. (New York Times, May 27, 1986, p. C12)

Diana Vreeland is not mentioned in any of these early cites, and her use of navy blue as a standard fashion color had been replaced by black (thanks to Donna Karan and other designers of the day). It's hard to know exactly what influence Vreeland had on the "new black" pronouncements of the '80s, but perhaps for fashionistas of the era the old line about pink being "the navy blue of India" was such common knowledge that it was easy to mold into the "X is the new black" template. Or perhaps there are still some missing steps between the Vreelandism and the later snowclones. Either way, it doesn't look like Gloria Vanderbilt had anything to do with it.

[Update: Barry Popik has tracked down an intermediary step on the way to "the new black" of the '80s — "the new neutral":

Colors are the new neutrals. Find a color you like and wear it with everything. (New York Times, Sep. 16, 1979, p. NJ16)

Pearl gray is the new neutral, navy and black are everywhere, alone or with anything. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 12, 1979, p. B3)

Lila Schneider, another New York designer, said, "Pink is the new neutral — a change from the stark white of the last few years." (Chicago Tribune, Oct. 19, 1980, p. 13-1)

No one knew how to interpret all this color experimentation until one New York observer finally blurted: "It looks like red is the new neutral." (Toronto Globe & Mail, Nov. 24, 1981, p. F6)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 28, 2006 05:10 PM