“Fuchsia,” Katy says.
She’s pointing to a $150 pair of sneakers.
“Those are the ones I want!”
Katy is only nine years old but she’s already possessed of a larger vocabulary for colors than her thirteen-year-old brother. In fact, she even knows the names of some colors that her father doesn’t recognize!
What is it with girls and color perception? Do they have a more developed brain area for color? Or is it a socialization thing? Or maybe they’re born that way?
A study of the color identification and vocabulary skills of 101 female and 52 male college students by Katherine S. Green and Malcolm D. Gynther revealed that women identified significantly more elaborate colors than did the men. The study, “Blue versus periwinkle: color identification and gender,” appeared in Perceptual and Motor Skills in 1995, and it also found that having a color-related hobby predicted color identification under some conditions. That study confirmed earlier findings by Jean Simpson and Arthur W.S. Tarrant, published in Language & Speech (1991). Surveying 26 females and 24 males in naming 200 color samples, those researchers discovered that women used more elaborate color names than men. Simpson and Tarrant also found that color related hobbies “were significantly correlated with enhanced vocabulary for the male group, but not for the female group” (emphasis supplied). In other words, females had a greater color vocabulary than men — even when females didn’t have a color-related hobby.
THE MEANING OF COLOR
A woman’s greater ability to identify different colors suggests something important about the meaning of color for women and men. When they buy shoes, women naturally have a superior ability to identify different colors, and most women typically own shoes in more colors than men, who usually only have black and brown footwear. But what does this mean for women and men? Does it mean that women have a greater attachment to different colors, or that they prefer to have a greater selection of colors and wish to wear those colors for some specific purpose?
A classic study of the meaning of photography, painting, and color published by John Berger in 1990, based on Ways of Seeing, his BBC television series, explores some of the multiple layers of meaning assigned to colors. Simple social ideas, such as that red means stop and green means go, may obscure the fact that color usually signifies many more things to people; in fact, individuals and groups often attach significant emotional meaning to color, as in the area of race relations and also in the area of gender relations, where pink and blue are typically assigned respectively to girls and boys. Indeed, multiple social and gender influences converge when it comes to forming our color preferences for shoes.
Roland Barthes, the French linguist who specialized in deconstructing popular culture, called attention to the curious fact that while the modern world is replete with words and images, images are frequently accompanied and “surrounded by” words, which guide and condition the interpretation of those visual elements. In the same way, social expectations and gender conditioning surely combine to affect the meanings that we, and those we work with, attach to color. This may, in part, explain the strong emotions evoked when women shop for shoes. It may also contribute to our understanding of Katy’s urgent preference for those fuchsia sneakers.
But our color preferences — which are swayed by gender conditioning, social influences, and other meaning systems — can sometimes work against our best interests when selecting shoes for professional environments. While men typically buy only brown and black, women tend to want to match their shoes to their outfits, and they may select beige shoes when wearing a beige suit, for instance. Our research on the semiotics of color, conducted by surveying professionals from across the United States, reveals that color signifies the presence or relative absence of competence, intelligence, and integrity. In other words, clients and others that you come into contact with on a day-to-day basis, will impute negatives or positives to you, usually unconsciously, based on your shoe color. This process of attaching meaning to color often works to the disadvantage of both men and women professionals who fail to take note of the negative meanings that other people associate with the color of certain shoes. Men, for example, lose status and signify various degrees of incompetence with brown shoes; women invite more challenges from men when wearing colors that are the same shade, or lighter, than their suits, unless they’re wearing black outfits with black shoes.
These findings may perturb individuals who prefer to “do what I want” or who elect to ignore the fact that color connotes meanings beyond their own internal guesses as to what looks good. But the risk of ignoring a powerful meaning system like color is that you can experience various negative connotations associated with selecting less effective shoe colors.
We would never tell Katy not to buy her fuchsia sneakers, but we would advise female professionals to avoid those color pumps, for example, when at work. There is a spectrum of effectiveness, from high to medium to low, when it comes to shoe color; and we’ve found that the most effective colors are at least two tones darker than your outfit, with black shoes testing best when paired with navy and black suits. Other outfits that test well include those with shoes that are more than two shades darker; for example, a black pump with a white dress is an effective combination.
While men who don’t wish to trigger negative reactions are restricted to black shoes exclusively, women have a considerably wider palette to choose from. When Katy grows up she’ll probably still have strong color preferences but if she listens to the research she’ll save her fuchsia pumps for nights at the opera.