Colour Focus: Rethinking Flesh

Beyond the Pale

In an increasingly global and inclusive economy, narrow colour ranges traditionally associated with the term flesh pink need a radical reappraisal to ensure relevance.

The terms flesh, nude and skin have become a ubiquitous, and some would say, lazy short hand for fashion designers creating clothes that blur the line between fabric and skin. However, a swift look at the narrow parameters of the shades of pale pink highlights one of the big issues when replicating skin tones; a complete lack of ethnic diversity. This appropriation of flesh is endemic; just think of the colour of sticking plasters or nude coloured shoes if you have any doubt.

Clearly there is huge potential for broadening the boundaries of what is labelled as flesh colour and trend forecasters can certainly be instrumental in bringing about this change. Colour notation houses too are up for the challenge. Why else would Pantone devote an entire palette of 110 real skin tone shades for its SkinTone™ Guide? 

Marketed as the only internationally available colour standard of accurately matched skin tones, each number is comprised of a four digit alphanumeric number reflecting both the hue and undertone of the skin, while the second two represent the tone or lightness and darkness of the skin. (Effectively skin has an undertone, determined by a simple test by looking at the underside of the wrist; if the veins are blue or purple, it’s a cool tone, if green or yellow, it’s a warm tone.)

Pantone’s skin tone guide is well timed; there are at last signs that the concept of skin colour is broadening out; many cosmetic companies now offer a broad range of skin colours, for example. And it is also telling that Emoji faces now come with a little menu of racially diverse colours, allowing users to individually tailor messages with race appropriate tones. 

Maybe in the future the term flesh coloured will, as Pantone imagined it, be less a narrow definition for a pale pink and more a stable of over 100 shades representing the sheer diversity of human skin. This seems likely, as economies in Africa and Asia continue to grow. In the end money will always speak louder than ethics. And trend forecasters have a vital part to play in this, abandoning narrow definitions and embracing a more inclusive and diverse definition of how we think of skin.