Mummy, what does nude mean?

21 May 2010 0

I opened the paper this morning to find a mild furore going on about Michelle Obama in a cream-coloured dress.

It all hinges on the fact that this colour is referred to by people who know about such things as “nude”. Problem is, it’s only really “nude” coloured if you’re a person who is that colour when they are nude, ie. a white person. Michelle Obama, in case you hadn’t noticed, is of the black persuasion. Cue racial hoo har, complete with quotes from professors of cultural studies and influential magazine editors.

It’s true that the terms “nude” or “flesh coloured” (which I’ve only ever heard used to refer to something the colour of a white person’s flesh) refer specifically to white people. And it’s a bit careless to call something “nude” when it’s nothing like the colour of the person wearing it. The AP seem to have belatedly realised this and amended their copy to use the less contentious adjective “champagne”. But that’s pretty much where the discussion ends for me. These words are well-established. If we were to spend all our time looking into the etymology of words and getting rid of the ones whose derivation had a link with some sort of historical badness, we’d run out of words.

Words that describe colours are notoriously inaccurate anyway. White people? Black people? I’ve never met either. I only know pink and brown ones. Red cabbage? Purple. Greenland? White. White grapes? Green. Blue cheese? Off-white. The only one that holds is ‘orange’ and I suspect that’s because the colour is named after the fruit. I do not propose we change the names of any of the things listed above.

I’m sure there’s an interesting story to be told about racism and fashion, but (speaking as a person of mixed black/white heritage and skin the colour of a weak cup of tea) I cannot sum up any outrage about this one. Wear what you want, call it what you want, leave me alone I’m busy. The only important upshot of this little kerfuffle is that I was able to type “michelle obama nude” into Google without feeling naughty.


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