Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Ghost of a Color

I watch Top Chef and Project Runway not because I want Padma to make mean faces at me or Heidi to tell me my design looks sad, but instead because I enjoy observing the processes of creative people. I like hearing the contestants explain how they arrived at their good ideas or, more often, listening as they talk themselves into pursuing a crap idea.

But another plus for me is the jargon — those weird words that the contestants spit out as if the American public will know what the hell they’re talking about. Sometimes we can tell by context. Sometimes we actually have no way of decoding a given sentence and figuring out what the strange French term means. (And, yes, whether it’s cooking or clothes, many of these words happen to be French, which is doubly difficult for me because I am terrible at guessing how French words might be spelled.) You’d better believe I get pissed when they don’t display the words on screen — when a Top Chefer, for example, boasts that they will “[unfamiliar French verb] some vegetables and meat to make a [unfamiliar noun — French? Arabic? Space language?]” and the chyron dumbs it down as “stew.”

Anyway, this week I had reason to learn a fashion term, though not from Project Runway, which most recently focused on party supplies and Betsey Johnson being a loopier real-life version of Janice from The Muppets. (I liked the episode anyway.) And this fashion term is happens to be the word of the week.
ombré (AHM-bray or ahm-BRAY) — 1. adjective: having colors or tones that shade into each other — used especially of fabrics in which the color is graduated from light to dark. 2. noun: the design resulting from this technique.
As I understand it, an ombré effect can result from either dip-dyeing a completed garment or weaving colored fabrics in a way that gradually blends and then switches out one color for another. Whatever the process, the result looks something like this:

No, not like a model wearing a loaded high-fashion diaper, but the fade from white to cyan to gray. To put it in color terms I’m more familiar with, ombré looks like someone selected the space of the garment and filled it with a Photoshop color gradient. Neat, I suppose, in that it seems to strip down the tie-dye aesthetic and elevate it beyond the hippie ghetto. (And in fashion, the hippie ghetto is a bad place to be.) However, it seems like a technique that would only look good on women’s clothes. I at least can’t imagine owning or wearing anything with a color fade.

The word comes from the past participle of the French ombrer, “to shade,” which goes back to the Latin umbra, “shade.” (Umbra also gives English the word umbrella. Translated literally from Italian, umbrella means “little shade,” which is exactly what the instrument provides even though English speakers call a sun-blocking umbrella a parasol, literally “sun-shield.”) The noun form of the French word, ombre, means “shade” or “darkness” but also “ghost.” This usage parallels English’s treatment of the word shade. And I like this too, because ombré reminds me of pentimento, the instance of a previously painted-over image becoming visible beneath a finished work, whether as a result of an x-ray or time thinning the top level of paint. The extra image appears ghostly — and truly would be spooky, if you noticed a transparent figure appearing in a painting where none stood before. I’m not sure if I prefer the idea of ombré being the lighter color gradually shining through the darker one or the darker one slowly swallowing up the lighter one.

Of course, ombré also happens to sound a lot like the Spanish word hombre, which is funny because ombré is this soft, feminine thing and an hombre is a gun-slinging dude walking into a saloon in a spaghetti western. In fact, there’s a relative in the name of the card game called ombre — it’s what Belinda plays in Rape of the Lock — and if you try to read about ombré on Wikipedia you just get directed to the article that starts with this image:

And that’s even worse than a high-fashion diaper.

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