What Color is Ombre?

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In the wake of the Starbucks red cup brouhaha, I encountered the phrase “red ombre.”

Disclaimer: I can’t help what my eyes light upon as I research these articles.

“Usually adorned with snowflakes and reindeer, this year the cups were given a makeover in a more sleek all red ombre look,” explained Bristol Palin.

This year’s holiday cup design is simplistic: an ombre from bright red to dark cranberry.—CNBC

I’d heard of “burnt umber”: the brown earth pigment burnt/burned to make it redder.

“Red ombre” was a new one on me, so I went straight to my dictionaries.

The relevant entry in the OED is ombré (also spelled ombre). As a noun, ombre is “a fabric woven, dyed, or printed in colour tones graduating from light to dark, usually giving a striped effect.”

Merriam-Webster defines the noun ombre as “an ombré design” or “a fabric with an ombré design.” It defines the adjective as a type of shading “used especially of fabrics with a dyed or woven design in which the color is graduated from light to dark and often into stripes of varying shades of one or more colors.

If, as stated in the CNBC account, the cups are not a solid red, but a gradation of “bright red to dark cranberry,” then—even though the color is printed on paper and not on fabric—I can see that the cups may be said to be “red ombre.”

The only red Starbucks cups I’ve seen to date in my part of the country have been solid red. Solid red is not shaded, so I can’t see how “a more sleek all red ombre look” is a possibility.

Happy Holidays, All!

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9 thoughts on “What Color is Ombre?”

  1. Technically, the Starbucks cups are a gradient, not an ombre. An ombre is a chunkier, sectioned color shift, where a gradient is a smooth blending of colors. Like so many words, however, the use of ombre has been so popularly misused that often gradients are called ombres.

    The cups that appear solid red in certain light, do indeed have a subtle gradient. Chances are, if you’re seeing only a solid red, it’s the light or you assumed the bottom of the cup was in shadow.

  2. Ombre / ombré is not a new term in fabric descriptions. I had ombre tee shirts and sweaters decades ago, and I have some items that are much newer than that. The change in color is very subtle, and can be very dark on one end and very light, or white, on the other.
    Ombre (noun) / ombré (adjective) is from the French word for shadow. The smoother the dyeing process is, the less “striped” the result.
    I think that the choice of the word to describe the Starbucks cups is strange.

  3. I work at the corporate office of a major hair salon chain. The first time I ever heard the term ombré was in reference to a hair coloring technique that has the same gradient effect. Now I’m hearing it used more and more in place of I’ve always called “gradient” (having used Photoshop a few times in my day). I’d never looked it up, so this was the first time I’d heard it used in the sense of fabric dying. My guess is the definition will be updated in future dictionary iterations.

  4. The language of marketing works by contagion, drawing together terms from unrelated semantic fields. ‘Red ombre’ seems just such a contagion in which a colour name, commuted to an adjective, describes a shadow. I’m OK with that but my sombrero won’t be darkening the threshold of any Starbucks any time soon. If on the other hand their marketing included being less backward in coming forward out of the shadow of their efforts to avoid paying UK corporation tax . . . who knows?

  5. We graphic designers have called that a “gradation” for some time as it refers to ink printed on a surface (not necessarily paper). I think I’ll continue calling it a gradation.

    Being also a threadworker, “ombre” is multi-colored yarn or other fiber with two or more colors either patched or blended along the strand so that when it’s woven, crocheted, knitted or otherwise interwoven the patterning in the yarn creates a patterning of its own, though usually patched rather than striped.

    Now, when you take that interwoven item and dunk it into a dye bath in a certain way, you can achieve an ombre effect, even on top of the ombre yarn effect. I’ll take a double ombre, please.

  6. I minored in French in college so the word was familiar to me, but first heard it used mainstream here when, like James there, my then-20-year-old daughter got her hair dyed kind of annoyingly half blonde and half whatever else, telling me this was all the rage, this ombre, but to me it looked like a dye job that was growing out badly. I kept my opinion to myself. She (thankfully) finally removed the lip piercing one day, so maybe the ombre will fade away as well.

  7. Regardless of the ombre/gradient distinction (which sounds quite legitimate to me) it would seem that to refer to it as “all” red would be redundant. If it switched colors, rather than shades or hues of a single color, either in distinct chunks or gradual blendings wouldn’t it no longer be either an ombre or a gradient? Or can those terms cover actual color shifts as well?

  8. I agree they’re red solid red. Nobody wants to speak plain simple English. They want to “interpret” it or “explain” what John or Jane Smith said in their speech. Heaven forbid we listen and figure out for ourselves what he or she said. I could care less what color the cups are because I don’t drink coffee. When I drink Starbucks it is a Frappuccino and it’s a cold drink that comes in a clear plastic cup.

  9. An aside: it’s annoying to see “simplistic” misused *yet again* instead of “simple” in one of the quotes you supplied: “This year’s holiday cup design is simplistic: an ombre from bright red to dark cranberry.—CNBC.”


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