If green is the active colour of nature, then brown is its passive counterpart. The natural colours of human hair and skin are all shades of brown, with a greater or lesser contribution from red – the colour of human existence. It is the colour of bare soil, from which we grow our food; it is the colour of wood, which we build so much out of; and it is the colour of decay, fallen leaves and fecal matter. It surrounds all stages of our existence at a very practical level. It is impossible to talk about it symbolically without referring back to these realities – the colour is grounded, down to earth, rooted.
Like purple, brown is a combination colour rather than a wavelength of light in its own right. Often considered a close hue to orange, brown is obtained by combining complimentary colours – red and green, orange and blue, or yellow and purple. Brown is not a stimulating colour. Many people find it rather dull, even slightly depressing. It reminds us of our physical nature, brings us back down from heights of emotion, passion or fancy with the clear message that it is the real world which we live in – the one were we have to eat, sleep and ablute.
Internationally, brown does not see a lot of variation in its meaning. It is rarely used politically, not appearing often in logos or flags. For most advertising purposes, it is found to discourage sales. The colour is just not an aspirational one. Its most common application is in uniforms that want to indicate that the wearer is trustworthy, steady, reliable and unthreatening. As such, the colour is often found in service businesses worldwide. International package delivery company UPS have even trademarked a specific shade of the colour as an important element of their corporate business, a hue now known officially as “UPS Brown”. Not all uses have been so wholesome, of course. Symbolism can deceive just as effectively as any other form of communication. The most reviled brown uniforms of recent memory are those of Hitler’s ‘Sturmabteilung’, the stormtroopers who formed the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party.