Screen green, used by Virgil Abloh in his last menswear collection for Louis Vuitton, eventually spread into mass fashion. From its toxic past to its digital and virtual present, green continues to fascinate us.
For a long time, in fashion, green remained a cursed color. As a water-soluble dye, green was unstable, changed shade, and did not hold for long. It was disappointing, incredibly difficult for the textile industry. In the mid-19th Century, a German chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, invented a pigment, a luminous green powder that was all the rage. We used it to paint, not dye, fabrics for dresses and furnishings, wallpaper, and even toys, candies, hair bands, gloves, artificial flower wreaths, book binders and more. Vibrant and mesmerizing, this new color was adopted by actors and stage directors for its high visibility.
The green curse
It was a time of short life expectancy, when women, ribcages compressed in tyrannical corsets, fainted at a drop of a hat and inhaled salts and vinegar to come to their senses. But all the same, how did it take so long – eighty years! – to notice that where there was green, there was always discomfort? In the presence of a green fabric or object, people felt pain, suffered from skin ulcers, nausea, coughs, tightness of the chest, conditions that could sometimes lead to death. Actors were the first to realize that it was best to avoid sweating in a green suit. When they did, they used to feel so sick that they had to leave the stage. Green was eventually banned from the theater and deemed “bad luck”, without further logical or scientific questioning.
A green to die for
The infamous story of Matilda Scheurer, a young London florist, opened the world’s eyes to the danger of the famous green powder. It was when applying it to crowns on the eve of a worldly event that she had a seizure and eventually died in horrific agony. The next day, the press jumped on the case to alert the public to the toxicity of the famed pigment. Dr. Scheele’s invention was a mixture of potassium, arsenic and copper oxide. Arsenic! Imagine the quantity of this poison that could be contained in a ball gown, or the gloves that a gentleman might wear, or those studies lined with the supposedly calming color where men and women indulged in drawing or reading without realizing that the walls were literally absorbing their life. It would take a few years to see green come back thanks to a cobalt-based dye.
A portrait of Empress Eugenie by Winterhalter bears witness to this: Guignet green was harmless, and the appearance of the Empress, a trendsetter in her time, wearing this color, is sensational. But green will take time to shake off its bad reputation. Gabrielle Chanel banned it from her collections. But the shade was quickly rehabilitated and brought good luck again, as the gaming tables at casinos prove.
We are definitely not done talking about Virgil Abloh. His men’s collection for Louis Vuitton this winter is marked by the appearance of a clean green that directors and movie staff are familiar with. This is “screen” green, rated 354c in the Pantone catalogue. A green screen placed behind the actors allows them to be filmed in a studio before adding the craziest sets or effects to create any illusion. Since human skin does not contain green, the color is rejected by the complexion of the actors, which will give a cleaner finish and facilitate post-production.
A little research also tells us that this fluorescent green -SYBR Green I in biochemistry- is used as a developer in PCR tests. In this particular green there is clearly something that belongs to the present time, connected to our digital and pandemic era, but also to our obsession with image and video, to our fear of the future on a planet threatened by climate change.
We can find it in all the collections for this season and next spring, at Dior as well as at Balenciaga, at Balmain as at Azzi&Osta, at RoniHelou as at Emergency Room, but also in mass fashion, at H&M and Zara.
We can go further, imagining the garment itself as a projection screen. The projected decoration could be placed on the green parts of our body and lead us into an immaterial dimension. A bit like the famous Voyageurs by sculptor Bruno Catalano, whose hollowed-out bodies, supported by a suitcase, fit the environment in which they are placed. This green that allows us to navigate between the real and the virtual is ultimately just a metaphor for our digital nomadism, one of those figures of speech that Virgil Abloh used to describe and understand our time.