How long ago did our ancestors start seeing, identifying, and distinguishing themselves on the basis of the social group(s) they belonged to? We’re not sure. We do know that even chimpanzees, who organize themselves into “troops” of less than 100 members, belong to their troop for their entire lives, unless they’re ousted from it.
When we started to use symbols and icons, we began to display what group we belonged to visually, as well as through oral language. Powerful emotions and beliefs, such as pride, courage, protectiveness and affection, were stimulated by these symbols. Think of how many millions left the safety of their homes, embarked on a dangerous adventure, and managed to kill and be killed during the Middle Ages. That was all out of obedience to what the symbol of the cross represented.
In Shogunate Japan, belonging to a noble house was deemed so important by the samurai class that a lack of membership was considered shameful. A warrior who did not belong to a house was suspect, a ‘ronin’. Association with a house was a must, and one’s personal reputation and the reputation of the house were one and the same. Therefore, wearing one’s house colours had a dramatic effect on behaviour – both how one behaved and how one was treated.
Centuries later, on the streets of New York in the 1980s, homeless, gay, lesbian and transgender youth of Hispanic and Black descent formed their own ‘houses’, inspired by names of great fashion houses, such as Chanel and Dior. In fact, it’s a mistake for me to call the members of these underground houses ‘homeless’ because they had created their own sense of shelter, social acceptance and identity, despite having been ostracized by mainstream society. This is where ‘voguing’ was born as a dance form, and Madonna famously recruited dancers for her Blonde Ambition Tour by auditioning at their underground parties. So, a few lucky kids got to belong to the House of Ciccone for a while. (By the way, I highly recommend the documentary Paris Is Burning, which is about the life of these houses and the brilliant fashion shows and competitions they held.)
Tribal identity and membership is never more fiercely on display than during sporting competitions, from a hockey game to the World Cup. Again, one flies the colours of their team/tribe. Display of the house branding is absolutely imperative. And many of these ‘houses’ come with their own theme song.
The importance of house colours extends to all classes. Just watch women in London bond over a Mulberry or Hermes Birkin bag, and you’ll see how powerful the allure of ‘house colours and symbols’ still is. In China, it was recently reported that the Louis Vuitton brand with its iconic LV logo, is now declining in popularity. Why? Because the burgeoning Chinese upper class sees that the LV house colours are now worn by the masses. The house colours have lost their luster, now that a farmer from the outskirts of Guangzhou can be seen wearing them.
In other words, it’s a universal and perennial human tendency to want to belong to a noble house and to fly those house colours proudly at certain times. The good news for those of us who work in branding is that we’ll never be out of work.