Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two views of "monochrome"

Several days ago, in a weak moment, I clicked on some links to coverage of the impending wedding of Amal Alamuddin and that famous actor. That day's photos showed Alamuddin in a striped black and white sundress, but many descriptions of it used a word I found odd: They called the garment "a striped monochrome dress."*

"Monochrome" (literally "one color") can of course mean black and white (or grayscale) if you’re talking about art or photography or film. Essentially, that usage doesn’t count the background as a color, but only the medium used to create the image or design. 

But this was the first time I'd seen this "monochrome" extended to clothing. If you told me someone tended to dress in monochrome, I’d picture her in shades of one color, not in wide black and white stripes. 

It’s not that I can’t see the parallel -- if a wallpaper design can be a monochrome print, why not a fabric? In fact, I've probably seen toile de Jouy prints called monochromatic; of course, as representational scenes, they seem closely related to art. So maybe the oddity, for me, was that the contrasting stripes of Alamuddin’s dress are equally prominent, so neither color comes across as "background." 

So far, the sources calling the dress (and other black and white striped clothing) "monochrome" seem to be British, so maybe this is a shade of meaning that simply hasn’t gained much traction on these shores. But if it's not here yet, I expect it to arrive any minute, borne on the wings of Zara and H&M. 

*Quote and photo from the Daily Mail.


Bryan White said...

I'm guessing that they're considering black and white as extreme manifestations of the same color (greyscale, as you said.)

I'm not sure I agree with them, but I'm guessing that's what thinking.

Gregory Lee said...

I looked it up.

adjective: monochrome

1.(of a photograph or picture, or a television screen) consisting of or displaying images in black and white or in varying tones of only one color.

So I really don't see the problem. The dress is black and white, hence it is monochrome. I don't see what it has to do with background versus foreground.

Bryan White said...

@Gregory: I believe she's referring to the idea that something can be rendered in monochrome in a certain medium or against a certain background like a sheet of paper, and we don't count the color of the paper in our reckoning of how many colors are involved. For instance, we would say that a blue sketch rendered on white paper was monochrome.

And so as such, she was speculating that they were calling the dress monochrome in the sense that it has black stripes rendered against a white background.

The other possibility, the one that you and I have suggested, is that they're merely considering black and white as two sides of the same colored coin.

As I've noticed before Gregory, you have an excellent, excellent grasp of how words work, and yet you seem to have a hard time comprehending what people are saying with them.

Bryan White said...

And I might add as well, I think this "background" conjecture falls apart not merely because neither stripe is especially prominent over the other (as speculated in the post) but because in the case of a sheet of paper of even the white light source projecting a film, the white is consider a rather standard color and easily disregarded as given.

With a dress, however, I wouldn't think that ANY color would be considered standard, and thus so easily disregarded as "background." I can't imagine a predominantly beige dress with a red pattern or red accents being referred to as "monochrome."

Herm Holland said...

I don't think it's as simple as giving monochrome only two distinct meanings.

The shades of one colour definition is often thought of as monochromatic colour, and is viewed as being a colour which is changed by adding white or black. So in this sense the monochrome aspect is defined by the black and white, with the colour simply being the variable.

In computing, monochrome can be used to refer to a colour which is either on or off. As computer software uses black as the absolute absence of all light and colour (with hue, lightness, and saturation at zero), this can be seen as the off state (with white following as the on state).

And there you have it; one British perspective. Enjoy!

Jan said...

To clarify for Greg Lee, I never said that there was a "problem" with this usage. However, the application of "monochrome" to striped clothing is a new thing in British English, and essentially nonexistent in AmE. It's not found in fashion reporting, it's startling to every woman I've asked, and so it seems natural to wonder how it emerged. It's fine if you don't find that interesting. Maybe you need to hang out at a real linguist's blog, where you won't always be disappointed.