By Science History Institute

Redefining Nude

Many everyday items are described as “flesh” and “nude” in color. Whose skin color do they represent?

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Browndages Bandages Browndages Bandages (2021) by Browndages, Rashid Bashir, and Intisar MadhIScience History Institute

How would you define “nude” as a color?

Historically, flesh and nude colors have often been defined as soft pink, excluding a wide range of skin tones. But many people, past and present, have worked to counteract such exclusionary terminology. 

Wear-Test Underwear (1937/1940) by DuPontScience History Institute

Until the 1910s, underwear was usually white.

Then a new hue came on the market. Called “flesh,” the color was a peach or pink tone. Whose flesh did this color reflect? This limited vision of “flesh” color remains a persistent problem. 

Color and Design in the Decorative Arts (1935) by Elizabeth Burris-MeyerScience History Institute

“Flesh” color bras created a “nude” look under sheer blouses

...but only for those with pink or peach skin tones. Other everyday items like “flesh”-colored hosiery and bandages soon followed. 

Throughout the 1930s, standard color definitions reduced “nude” to pinkish-beige, excluding people of color. 

Standard Color Card of America Disclaimer (1941) by Textile Color Card Association of the United StatesScience History Institute

This standardized 1941 color card presents a limited vision of "nude" skin color. With its restricted palette, the card reinforced the privileged status of whiteness.

Standard Color Card of America Samples (1941) by Textile Color Card Association of the United StatesScience History Institute

Objects like this shape our everyday experience as well as perceptions of ourselves and others.

Standard Color Card of America Samples (1941) by Textile Color Card Association of the United StatesScience History Institute

In 2015 the Merriam-Webster dictionary responded to #nudeawakening, a student-led social media campaign, to rethink their definition of nude from “having the color of a white person’s skin.” The updated definition is, “having a color that matches the wearer’s skin tones.” 

Prototypes and Test Sheets for Bellen’s More Than Peach® Crayons (ca. 2019) by Bellen WoodardScience History Institute

Eight-year-old Bellen Woodard’s experience of hearing her classmates call the peach crayon “the skin color” crayon inspired her to take action. These test crayons capture how Bellen reimagined color by connecting each shade to environments around the world.

In 2019, her creation became the More Than Peach project, promoting awareness and inclusivity beyond her classroom.

Browndages Bandages Bandages (2021) by BrowndagesScience History Institute

In 1921 Johnson & Johnson introduced the Band-Aid.

The ads described the pink-beige color as “inconspicuous” and “flesh-colored like your own skin.” Today, companies such as Browndages (a Black-owned business) make bandages in a much more inclusive range of skin tones.

SkinTones™ Color Swatch Kit (2021) by A Step Ahead ProstheticsScience History Institute

Many disabled people of color live with a prosthetic that does not match their skin color. Globally, most of the available “lifelike” prosthetics center whiteness and are a light pink color.

The SkinTones System offers silicone skins in a range of skin tones to cover prostheses.

Nigerian sculptor and prosthetics maker John Amanam creates prosthetics for people of color that more closely resemble their bodies, in a much wider range of skintones.

Aritificial Leg Apparatus (1950/1959)Science History Institute

A prosthetic leg that resembles the body, such as this image in a 1950s issue of Modern Plastics, is frequently presented as the ideal. Choosing color or skin tone is part of a wearer's self-presentation. 

Lablache Face Powder (1910s) by Ben Levy Co.Science History Institute

This “flesh” face powder from 1910, similar to other skin-related coverings, centered white skin. Cosmetic firms advertised “natural” colors such as “flesh” as being invisible and able to match the wearer’s skin tone. Light shades continued to dominate the mainstream market.

Overton’s High Brown La Petite Face Powder Overton’s High Brown La Petite Face Powder (1930s) by Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Co.Science History Institute

While white markets excluded darker skin tones, there were also entrepreneurs such as lawyer and chemist Anthony Overton, who developed products for people of color.

Overton established the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Co. in Kansas in 1898 and produced a popular line of cosmetics in darker shades. He was the first African American to head a major business conglomerate.

Valmor Sweet Georgia Brown Liquid Face Powder (1934) by Valmor Products Co., Charles C. Dawson, and Jay JacksonScience History Institute

African American graphic artists, Charles Dawson and Jay Jackson, designed labels for Sweet Georgia Brown Face Powder and other products. They worked for Valmor, a Chicago company established in 1926 by Morton Neumann, a Jewish Hungarian American chemist. 

Cosmetics were available in shades including “Aristocratic Brown” and “Beauty Brown.” Some products were also advertised as having skin lightening properties. 

Cheekbone Beauty SUSTAIN Face Palette Cheekbone Beauty SUSTAIN Face Palette (2021) by CheekboneScience History Institute

In 2016, Indigenous-owned company Cheekbone Beauty was established by Anishinaabe founder Jenn Harper. They specialize in sustainable cosmetics catering to a range of skin tones. Giving back to Indigenous communities is central to Cheekbone’s objectives.

The affirmative text underneath this palette’s mirror encourages us to also set positive intentions: “You are powerful! Do good. Look good. Feel good.”   

Sugar & Spice Pantyhose Sugar & Spice Pantyhose (1970s) by Sugar & SpiceScience History Institute

Although nylon garments could be dyed in a wide range of colors since their introduction in the late 1930s, few companies specifically developed or advertised products for people of color. 

In the 1970s, Chicago-based hosiery brand Sugar & Spice designed hosiery for Black women and celebrated the message of Black is Beautiful.

Half Chest Binder (2015) by gc2bScience History Institute

Today trans-owned company gc2b, founded and directed by Marli Washington, specializes in chest binders made of nylon and spandex in a range of skin tones.

gc2b has a “nude” line that comes in five different colors, centering the darkest shade. The collection starts with their darkest shade, “Nude No. 1” and goes to their lightest, “Nude No. 5.”

Chacott’s Nude Perky Tights and All Through Stockings (2021) by Chacott Co., Ltd.Science History Institute

People of color have long dyed hosiery to match their skin.

In the 1970s, designer Zelda Wynn Valdes famously dyed pale pink ballet tights to match the skin of dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. 

In 2019 Freed of London and Japanese dancewear company Chacott developed nylons beyond “Ballet Pink” to accompany their line of pointe shoes for dancers of color.  Products like these offer an alternative for dancers who dye their hosiery and “pancake” their shoes with makeup.

Pair of Ballet Pointe Shoes (2016) by Chanel HollandScience History Institute

Chanel Holland, founder and artistic director of Philadelphia’s Chocolate Ballerina Company, donated these customized shoes.

Holland wore them in 2016 when she launched her adult dance company and choreographed Chocolate Ballerina Company’s first performance, “Dreams into Reality.”

These shoes highlight the long history of resistance to restrictive norms in everyday “nude” objects shaped by science, technology, and medicine. 

Bellen’s More Than Peach® Crayons (2021) by Bellen’s More Than PeachScience History Institute

Credits: Story

Written and curated by Isabelle Marina Held, Science History Institute.

With special thanks to Bellen and Tosha Woodard, Chanel Holland, and the dancers of the Chocolate Ballerina Company.


Title image: Group Wearing Binders, GC2B Transitional Apparel, 2017. 
Redefining Nude was on display in the Science History Institute museum in 2022. Watch Isabelle present the exhibition on YouTube.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.