Monday, November 10, 2014

Orange rage against the dying of the light


It’s autumn again, and the sunlight fades. The world waxes orange, from tree leaves to squash and pumpkins (and their Halloween simulacra). Last autumn’s ISCC News had a Hue Angles column on the color orange. Now let’s look at a possible psychological effect of the color: its hypothetical ability to encourage a fighting response---even rage (as if orange in autumn encourages us to "rage against the dying of the light," to quote Dylan Thomas).

Football teams such as that of Syracuse University sport orange uniforms. Could this be a kind of visual “fight song?” I don’t know about Syracuse, but it surely was a visual “fight song” for Princeton’s baseball team, which long ago adopted the colors orange and black based on such a premise. This is recalled by one of us (HSF) with particular authority: His father was the head of the Princeton athletic department.

Here are the relevant facts [see ref. 1]: In May of 1869, the Princeton College Class of 1869 Baseball Club had a game against Yale scheduled to take place in New Haven. As visitors they would traditionally wear black shirts and black or grey pants. The pants were likely their street clothes as were their shoes. The home team would wear white shirts and the same selection of pants. The club, hearing that orange was a color that inspired fear in an opponent, elected to have about an inch and a half ribbon commissioned that said “ ’69 B.B.C” in black on a bright orange ribbon. They cut these to length and wore them on their arms the way one would wear a black ribbon at a funeral. This was the first recorded use of orange and black among Princeton teams.The first college football game would not be played until the fall of the next academic year, November 1869. Princeton participated in that event, but there is no record as to whether they wore orange that day. By the 1880’s Princeton football teams were wearing black jerseys with orange and black stripes around the sleeves. 

Odeda Rosenthal, who is best known in the color world for her book Coping with Color Blindness [Avery Pub. Grp., 1997], once presented an ISCC paper (probably in Interest Group III, in the late 1990s) on the relation of orange color and rage. Nobody seems able to find an abstract, but a personal letter she sent to me 25 Oct 1997 made the promise, “Next year I would like to present OBSERVATIONS ON THE COLOR ORANGE. By then I should be in the green.” I remember hearing the presentation---not deep and scholarly, but anecdotal and forceful.  She was wearing an orange dress. Cynthia Sturke remembers this too---I am not alone in my recollection.

Although the evidence is circumstantial, one of us (MHB) couldn’t resist using the message of the paper. When he went to Tambov in 2008 to teach English to Russian students, he wrote this poem to be read at the closing ceremony, after he saw the  commemorative  T-shirts in the terrible color scheme of bright orange, white, and beige.

Color Selection

The RGBs of color---
the laws that give us light
say: Don’t prepare your briefing slides
in colors equi-bright.

Though op art thrived on reds and greens
of equal luminosity,
attempts to read such art
could cause blown lunch of low viscosity.

The hues themselves are also key:
A certain study shows
bright orange taps amygdalas
and makes us come to blows.

So make your message clearly seen
in hues that don’t enrage:
Don’t print it on a T-shirt
in bright orange, white, and beige.

Are Princeton’s visual fight song, Odeda’s paper, the colors of autumn, and Dylan Thomas all connected? Odeda would perhaps have speculated, but sadly she is not with us, having passed away more than six years ago.

1. Don Oberdorfer, Princeton University: The First 250 Years, ISBN 0-691-01122-2, The Trustees of Princeton University (1995), pg. 68.

Michael H. Brill and Hugh S. Fairman