Why the West is Afraid of Color

The colorful (and enraging) history of how neutrals and monochrome became the preferred Western aesthetic.

Ishani Nath

October 12, 2022

Why the West is Afraid of Color
(Illustration by Karuna Gangwani, with image from Travis Wise)

“Oh, I just love your celebrations. They’re so colorful!” This is the reaction I’ve heard for years from non-South Asians referring to everything from wedding celebrations to cultural and religious festivals — and no, it’s not exclusive to Holi. That’s not to say it’s untrue, but these comments had an ick factor, leaving me with a feeling that “colorful” was code for “exotic.”

Kriti Mehta, a 26-year-old who owns a South Asian boutique in Auckland, New Zealand, said these comments are so common “it’s almost like a meme at this point.” By contrast, Mehta noted that a Google search for “classy aesthetic” leads to mostly neutrals as results — especially in the last few decades. 

The rise of neutrals — think white walls, plain shelving, and grey furniture — recently became a heated topic of conversation TikTok, stemming from an article claiming that “color has been disappearing from the world.” The author cited data showing that everyday objects have become less colorful and greyer. Drivers have a growing preference for white or black cars. Even carpets have lost their color, with beige being the most popular tone, followed by grey and brown. In South Asian fashion, Mehta has noticed a preference for suits and lehengas in pastel pink, beige, or white. One TikTok user (@eggmcmuffinofficial) connected this beige era to a preference for minimalism and mass consumption, creating an aesthetic that is easy to replicate and mass produce. 

But some users, including Mehta, noted that the appeal of neutrals goes deeper. In fact, according to some experts, the West has a history of resisting — and even fearing — color.