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What are Earth Tone Colors? A Fashion Question for the Ages

read about earth tones now and in the 70s

by Tina Boomerina (Christina Gregoire)

read about good earth tones and bad earth tones IMO

Chic Green Earth Tones for Fall

What is an earth tone? This is one of the questions for the ages, like the riddle about the sound of one hand clapping… or a tree falling in the forest. However, we still want to know what an earth tone color scheme is because women’s fashion is leaving bright colors behind and going earthy for 2015 and 2016 and into the foreseeable future… if Valentino’s Resort Collection is any indication.

Yes, you can still buy brightly colored clothing even though muted colors are the latest style. We're talking about a general trend, but we have choices because, fortunately, we don’t live in a fashion dictatorship.

The Definition of an Earth Tone Color Scheme:

As for the earth-tone question, Wikipedia has one definition. I’ll paraphrase it for the sake of brevity: The earth-tone color scheme draws from the browns, tans, warm grays, and greens of nature in an attempt to emulate the muted colors of dirt, moss, trees, and rocks.

Okay. That's nice, but it's not very specific.

Earth Tone Colors for Women's Clothing:

Most older women have lived through many clothing trends and fashion upheavals, but younger gals may need a little help visualizing what colors are included in the earth-hue category.

Hey, I’m sure my ideas about fashion colors will not be as exacting and celebrated as some other post you might read from a “color expert”, but I hope my version is a bit more interesting, because I’ve lived through several waves of earth-tone fashion palettes, all of them a bit different. And, to be honest, I have had mixed emotions over the years when it comes to dull, muted clothing colors.

The first time I encountered earth-toned clothing was in the 60s.

I used to hate earth tones, but now I know which ones are good for me

Ugly 1960s Fashion

I hated those colors. They were flat and ugly. The earthy 1960s versions of rust and mustard made my youthful preteen complexion turn into a sallow cartoon version of acute pancreatitis. Not my best look.

But then, something happened. Earth tones grew up.

how to wear earth tones for beginners and professionals

Beautiful Example of 70s Earth Tones

And, I suppose I grew up, too. I learned how to wear different colors... and I learned which colors should go next to my face and which colors should be used as accents... with handbags and cardigans and boots.

Anyway, some of this article is written for my own reminiscence and nostalgia. And, other parts are written to help younger chicks learn about fashion history. Of course, it's all blended together to make a fun, informational post... as always.

60s Earth Tones Were Bad, 70s Earth Tones Were Awesome:

If you’re not old enough to remember the bohemian fashions of the late 60s and early 70s, you should study them.

Those back-to-the-earth colors suddenly became artistic visions expressed through complex interplays of earth-toned hues. And, these darkly riveting shades were often woven into finely honed fabric prints… that somehow flattered all… or almost all… women. (See image entitled 70s earth tones.)

Yes, there were some truly tragic earth-tone outfits in the Sears Catalogs, circa 1970s. However, let’s ignore those tacky mishaps. Instead, we should focus on the great fashions of the era, created by many unsung heroes and a few boho gods, like Yves St. Laurent, who were particularly adept at finding better ways of comingling these muddy, swampy, rusty hues into groovy new symphonies of color.

  • The early 70s became a time of tremendous fashion experimentation as different styles were pulled together into a single ensemble.
  • Haute Couturiers, like Valentino, showed us that all colors were beautiful when done right.
  • We were taught new combinations and modern ways to put earth tones together by YSL, one of the all-time masters.
  • The 1970s brought cute prairie fashions (with their own earthy colors) to American baby boomers with the Gunne Sax line of historic, almost folkloric, dresses.
  • Earth tones must have been the true love of YSL because he put so much effort into designing the perfect earth-hued looks.
  • And, the more I study the interplay of these subtle colors, the more I'm starting to love them.

But, without all this fashion experimentation, boho, as we know it, would not exist today. And, we would all be stuck wearing those horrible pumpkin plaids... forever and ever... or something even worse, like saddle shoes.

read about new and retro earth colors

Beautiful Boho-Hippie Top

Earth Tones are Dirt Tones... from the Earth

In reality, earth tones could also be called dirt tones. That’s what the phrase really means, if you think about it. I’m sure some marketing guru came up with the nifty name “earth tones”, after someone mentioned that no fashionable woman would buy a wardrobe in a trendy, dirt-toned color palette.

Anyway, I think we should ignore the ugly 1960s earth tones, and get more into the nature-inspired colors of the boho-hippie 70s.

Traditional Fall Colors – The Ongoing Color Scheme of the 70s:

I guess it really didn’t matter what the earthy 1970s colors looked like on you. And, we've all had a good laugh at the fashion catastrophes like the crocheted unisex look above.

But, seriously, if you were a happening chick (or a hipper-than-spit dude), you wore earth tones because they were a huge anti-corporate, anti-parent, anti-establishment statement. Those wonderfully muddy shades of Coffee Brown and Blood Orange were a rebellion against everything sweet and pretty... that debutante stuff that our mother's encouraged.

Retrospace.org, in their (otherwise) clever article, says, "The 'browning of the seventies' was really a reaction to the psychedelic color palette of the late 60s."

ugly trends baby boomers rebelled against

70s Matchy Matchy Pink Plaid

Well, I disagree. And, I was a child of the 60s and 70s.

Maybe the fashion conspirators turned to brown-tones to get away from the less-inspired, harsher colors of bad psychedelic design… and YES… there was such a thing as good psychedelic design (dusky purple paisleys on a mellow pumpkin background of silk velvet is one example that springs to mind).

However, I remember the early 70s. My cohorts and I were still protesting the Viet Nam War and other improprieties of the day. And, I remember that earth tones represented the epitome of anti-plastic, anti-fake, anti-cutesy…

oh heck…

I can’t remember everything we were rebelling against, but I do remember that matchy-matchy pink plaid was not the coolest look of the 70s... at least not where I lived.

Earth tones rocked. Lug out that old avocado refrigerator, baby.

Not Everyone Can Wear Mustard:

No matter how much I like a bit of yellow sparkle, mustard is not my best color unless I go bananas with the bronzer. Same with pumpkin… but I have a pumpkin handbag that goes with everything… especially dusky purple.

read tips about earth tones

Learn How to Wear Earth Colors

If you like a color, but it's not your BEST color, wear it away from your face. The white of the sweater (in the above photo) is just enough visual space to allow you to wear any vest or cardigan of any color. I actually love this shade of ocher in my house, so I know I would wear it, however I need to keep it a certain distance from my face... or else I need to pile on the cosmetics... and I'm too old for that trick.

Your outfit does not have to consist of earth tones exclusively. Yes, you can give your outfit a bit of snap, crackle and pop by including jewel tones or blue tones. And, that’s because most vibrant colors look spectacular next to flat, muddy, dirty hues. I'm not sure why. I mean I know the contrast can be beautiful... but it's a look I really like.

Note: You should play around with this (to get it right) and don’t add too many jewel-tone shades outside of your earth-tone palette. On the other hand, almost all dirt colors seem to go with other dirt colors… so if you stay in the same range… you can play with more colors. And, that means you can wear a lot of these clothes with unexpected colors you already own. (Think like a child when getting dressed, but critique like an adult before walking out the door.)

read about fashion colors for fall

Outfits With Green, Yellow & Orange

Perfect Seventies Vintage Outfits:

If you’re going for a proper, vintage feel, you should try for an ensemble that includes at least one of the three anchors of the 70s earth tones: burnt orange, yellow ocher, or deep mossy green. (Brown, of course is the big kahuna of the earth tones, so that always works as well.)

However, you’ll win the brass ring if you can combine all three 70s colors in one outfit. Try something like an avocado-olive floppy hat, a Persian orange blouse, a goldenrod-yellow purse, and a pair of dark blue jeans (denim became a neutral in the 70s).

If you want to find an earth-tone print that really speaks to the 70s, look for a paisley print, a ditsy-floral prairie-dress print, or some kind of patchwork print. That hippie vibe gets you extra hipness points and tremendous street cred. And, actual patchwork skirts – or trousers – made from various shades of brown suede are also very vintage. (I was a sewing klutz, but I had friends who made these by hand and lived fairly well off their handiworks.)

Visualize Dirt and Moss and Trees and Rocks:

Well, we know that brown is an earth tone, but we still don’t have a straight answer about where to draw the line with other shades. I guess you can start here:

  • Earth tones are any color that’s related to brown and is (usually) fairly warm -- yellow or red -- in tone.
  • Your skin is an earth tone.
  • Your lips are an earth tone.
  • You are mostly earth tones.

New Earth Tone Colors for Fall 2015 and Winter 2016:

fall fashion colors pantone 2015

New Lighter Earth Tones

We are going into a new phase of earthy fashion hues. You can see some of them in the main photo at the top of the page.

However, designers always make little changes whenever we cycle through an earlier trend. The new earth tones are a little different from the ones from the 70s (and 80s… oooh, I just shuddered at the thought of 80s fashions… let’s stay away from those to avoid having nightmares).

The current season’s trendy earth tones are either softer and more sun bleached or darker and more shadowlike than most of the colors in this article. Yet, even though the AW15-16 colors have a different feel to them, all of the new colors are either elegant versions of standard earth tones or swank coordinating hues with the same muted touch.

You Can Find 70s Colors in Clothing as Well:

If you want the full-bodied Hobbit colors from the days of yore, the brown-based shades of the woodland creatures, or the tender yellow-greens of the morning forest, you can find new versions of these, too.

Somehow, in my mind, I always see most earth-tone clothing as something you should be able to wear while making mud pies… without the dirt showing too much. So, to me, very pale “earth shades” are not quite right. Of course, you can make mud pies while wearing denim… and not get very dirty… so I suppose my idea is wrong. (Note: All vintage 70s earth tones look amazing with dark denim.)

I feel these are the true earth tones... read more

Real Earth Tones From Clay Pigments

True Earth Tones Come from Natural Pigments:

The following is my conclusion after doing a bit of research for this article:

I believe that the true earth tones are the colors made of clay earth pigments, which include naturally occurring minerals. Artists have used variations of this same earth-tone palette (above) since the beginning of time, and in my mind, these colors are closer to the true earth-tone color scheme than any man-made paints or dyes.

ocher, sienna, umber are earth tones

Lascaux Painting in Ocher

  • Prehistoric cave paintings, like those at Lascaux, France, were made with natural ocher pigments.
  • Renaissance painters mixed their own oils using clay earth pigments (basically powdered earth or clay), such as sienna, ocher, and umber.

Note: One very interesting thing I noticed is that the 70s earth tones were very similar to the natural pigment earth tones. So, the designers from the 70s, like YSL, were being true to their European roots and history.

What Colors Should You Wear? Answer: Colors You Love.

read about groovy 70s stuff

Rust Suede Outfit 2015

Fashion comes and goes. Fashionable colors come and go. However, the real definition of earth tones, in my humble opinion, should only include colors that can be made using earthen pigments.

Sure, you can wear whatever colors make you feel groovy. And, though I had a bad start with earth-tone clothing, I finally realized that every woman has several earth-tone colors that will complement the color of her skin, her eyes, and her hair. After all, we are part of the earth.

I didn't know I was going to end up writing a mini term paper about earth-tone fashions... but I guess that's what I did. Anyway, if you find anything cute on sale in brown, tan, olive, moss, avocado, rust, burnt orange, mustard, pumpkin, carnelian, or a similarly earthy color, you should seriously consider getting it. Check out thrift stores and consignment shops, too. You're never too old to stay on trend... just don't try to fit into your old hippie jeans from college.

More Articles for Hip Baby Boomer Women & Their Fashionable Friends:

60s Fashion Style -- 1964 Mod Dresses, Go Go Boots, Quant, Beatles & Retro Fashion

Hippie Clothes: How Did Hippie Fashion Start?

Classic Tailored Fashion Over 40: Interview With the Style MD for Women, Jennifer Connolly

Plus Size Boho Chic: 16 Essentials for Hippie Women of All Ages

modern fashion colors

Main Photo

Photo Credits: Prshots.com and Creative Commons.

  • Main Photo: Accessorize.
  • Chic Green Earth Tones for Fall: Long Tall Sally.
  • Ugly 1960s Fashion: 60s fashion ad.
  • Beautiful Example of 70s Earth Tones: 70s fashion ad.
  • Beautiful Boho-Hippie Top: Monsoon.
  • 70s Matchy Matchy Pink Plaid: 1973 fashion ad.
  • Learn How to Wear Earth Colors: Long Tall Sally.
  • Outfits With Green, Yellow & Orange: 70s fashion ad, East Clothing.
  • New Lighter Earth Tones: Accessorize.
  • Real Earth Tones From Clay Pigments: Image Tina Boomerina (based on information from Earthpigments.com. Top colors: Venetian Red (from Italy), Brown Ocher (France), Burnt Umber (France), Cyprus Green (Cyprus), Light Yellow Ocher (France), Natural Red (India). Bottom colors: Ancient Green Earth Pigment (Italy), Red Ocher (France), Italian Umber (Italy), Dark Yellow Ocher (France), Burnt Sienna (France), Slate Grey Schist Pigment (France).
  • Rust Suede Outfit 2015: Wallis.

Tina Boomerina (AKA Christina Gregoire) is a Baby Boomer born at the end of 1952. Her mission is to make the internet a kinder and gentler place for Baby Boomer women around the world. Tina's specialty is fashion for women over 50.

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  1. kay kerns

    Hi Tina Loved the article...I always looked good in the earth tones, and like you I prefer the 70's interpretation. I just bought a brown purse and now I'm looking for some more items in these colors.

    • Tina-Boomerina

      Kay, I need a brown purse. I always use my royal blue purse, but I need something more earth toned. I would like to get rust suede, but I haven't looked around yet. There is no shopping (very little shopping) in Bend, so it's a good thing I know how to find deals online.

      Did you get a handbag that goes over your arm or a shoulder bag or what?