#Powercolors: olive green

#Powercolors: olive green

Giovanni Blandino Published on 3/11/2024

Relaxation, military uniforms, counterculture and cigarette packets: there can’t be many colours that represent more items and emotions than olive green. What might seem like the most natural of colours – the hue of the delicious fruit of the olive tree – is actually a fairly rare pigment in the world of textiles, yet it is practically ubiquitous in our visual culture. Why?

One of the main reasons is that olive green was chosen as the colour for the uniforms of the US army, one of the largest armed forces in the world. But olive green is much more than that: perhaps drawing on its ‘military’ heritage, this hue has been used in the most surprising of ways.

Today we’ll explore olive green together, examining its history and most famous applications, with a few anecdotes thrown in along the way.

What colour is olive green?

Olive green is a slightly yellowish shade of green that – as the name implies – recalls the colour of olives. It’s a rather contradictory hue. On the one hand, psychologically olive green evokes feelings of calm, peace and relaxation and is often associated with nature and outdoor activities. On the other hand, it is known as the colour of military uniforms and is frequently used as a symbol of power. For ancient Greeks, for example, the olive tree symbolised Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war.

Olive green’s Pantone code is 17-0535 TCX, and according to Encycolorpedia, the HEX code for olive green in digital environments is #8d8b55.

The history of olive green: from medieval faces…

Some sources claim that the use of the term olive green to indicate a green with yellowish or brown hues, similar to the fruit of the tree of the same name, first appeared during the middle ages.

During this period, an olive green pigment called Green Earth had a special use in painting: it was deployed by medieval artists as a base layer underneath the faces in some of their most striking works. This was a well-known trick at the time: when covered with pink, the green layer made the shadows and structure – or texture – of the skin appear more convincing.

The Rucellai Madonna, painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna, with Green Earth used as a base for the faces. Image: restaurars.altervista.org

The Sienese master painter Duccio di Buoninsegna is renowned for using this device. Some of the subjects of his paintings now have bizarre green-looking faces: the pink tones have faded, leaving only the underlying green visible.

…to military uniforms

Today, however, olive green – a relatively rare pigment in the natural world – is a very common colour in clothing. The reason for this is simple: over the course of the last century, many countries have adopted it for their military uniforms.

The shade of olive green adopted by the United States for its uniforms in the early twentieth century is known as military green or Olive Drab. Olive Drab is particularly useful as camouflage in an array of landscapes, making it ideal for the weapons, uniforms, tanks and even boxer shorts used during the Second World War and the war in Vietnam. It was only in 1981 that Olive Drab was replaced by another camouflage pattern, the four-colour Woodland.

Over the decades, the shade of military green used by the US army changed for a number of reasons. For example, they found a glossier hue looked better in military parades, and in 1943 the air force added some anti-infrared characteristics to the colour.

Today many other countries’ armed forces also wear military green uniforms, including Cuba, Venezuela, India and Austria.

Olive green: from uniforms to counterculture

Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, wearing his iconic military green jacket. Image: verocinema.com

Curiously, in the 1960s and 1970s olive green – or its military green version – also became a symbol of American counterculture, pacifism and anti-consumerism, at least from a clothing perspective.

This stemmed from the enormous stocks of surplus military clothing that flooded the market after the Second World War: in the subsequent decades, many young Americans started wearing olive green military supplies as a way of opposing the status quo and as an ironic way of opposing the standardisation of uniforms.

Two cult 1970s films helped cement olive green clothing’s iconic status: Al Pacino in Serpico and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver both play outsiders with military or olive green attire.

Al Pacino wearing an olive green jersey in Serpico. Image: sbiff.org

The ‘ugliest colour in the world’?

One specific shade of olive green – a very dark hue, verging on brown, with Pantone code 448 C – is deemed the ugliest colour in the world.

It all started in 2012, when the Australian government started hunting for the least attractive colour it could find to use on cigarette packaging, in a bid to discourage people from buying tobacco products. The marketing agency tasked with this identified this particular shade of olive green as the least appealing to consumers.

A mock-up of a packet of cigarettes using the ugliest olive green in the world. Image: itsnicethat.com

Although some people protested that Leonardo da Vinci had used the very same colour to paint the Mona Lisa’s robe, the Australian government’s choice can’t have been too far wide of the mark: in the years that followed, many other countries also introduced this colour for their cigarette packets, including Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Slovenia and Saudi Arabia.

Olive green in fashion, design and interiors

However, the classic olive green, with Pantone code 17-0535 TCX, is anything but repellent.

An olive green Prada dress worn by actress Maya Hawke on the catwalk at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Image: tg24.sky.it

Olive green is very popular in the fashion world because it is a neutral colour, easy to pair with other hues.

But its success is particularly due to the colour’s links, rightly or wrongly, with the military – an association exploited in countless ways, some more irreverent than others. Some people believe olive green has been one of fashion’s dominant colours since the 1990s, chosen for its non-conformist appeal.

The 1959 IKEA Cavelli armchair, in its original olive green colour. Image: architecturaldigest.com

In interior design, meanwhile, olive green is much appreciated for its versatility and welcoming feel. In recent years it has been widely used on furniture and accessories, although this is nothing new: one of the first popular pieces of IKEA furniture, the Cavelli armchair, designed by Bengt Ruda in 1959, was introduced to the public in a beautiful olive green version.

What are your feelings about olive green? How would you use it in your projects, and what meaning would you ascribe to it?