NOT so very long ago, sheets were white, refrigerators came in Old Gold, Avocado Green, and Coppertone, and a color telephone cost you extra. ``We think we've had color forever,'' says color forecaster June Roche. ``We're just infants in our use of color.''
Ms. Roche, a petite woman with a topknot of reddish-brown hair, has been the fashion director for Milliken & Co., a huge textile manufacturer, for the last 26 years. She describes her role in somewhat daunting but intriguing terms: ``being aware of everything that's going on in the whole world, and assimilating it, and pulling it all together.
``It's like being a stock analyst. I'm looking for the changes; I'm watching for the shift in the wind,'' she says.
Twice a year, she puts together a slide show on trends, which she shows to fashion experts, auto designers, and furniture designers, among others. ``I hold up fenders in my fashion shows,'' she says. ``I like to cross lines; I get bored easily. My show is aimed at creative people. I have people who make awnings, blenders, bathtubs. It doesn't matter what it is, because fashion influences everything.''
A new color, for instance, ``always starts in fashion,'' Roche says. ``A blouse or skirt is a lot cheaper than a sofa. Then when you're used to seeing it on each other, or in a store window, or on your towels and sheets, then maybe you're ready for your wall-to-wall carpeting, or your refrigerator, or Cadillac.''
The reason for color shifts: Our eyes rejoice in change. It isn't just that styles and fashionable colors alter, and our tastes with them, like obedient little poodles; rather, fashions evolve to try to catch our shifts in mood, our feeling that it's time for Something Completely Different.
It needs to be the right something different, however. And figuring out what the consumer will want is difficult.
Roche says colors, which have recently been very gray -- ``we've been overgrayed around the world right now'' -- are going to be more distinctive in all areas of design, not just women's clothes.
``The colors were very dark, dirty. We didn't call them that then; we called them understated and refined. But they're going to look dirty to our eyes now,'' she says.
For instance, a dress in a dusty, smoky color that has looked absolutely chic for several years may suddenly look drab -- too loose, or too short, or something; a certain je ne sais quoi will have departed. ``Now you're going to pull it out and say, `Oh, I must have dry-cleaned this too much,' '' says Roche.
To come up with her forecasts, she looks at art, music, theater, architecture. ``You never know where it's going to come from,'' she says. For instance, MTV and the high-tech gladiator look of ``The Road Warrior'' have influenced fashions for youth. Other forms of TV have had an impact on adults: ``Soap operas are making people want to dress up again. People have seen Joan Collins and Linda Evans with their big earrings and their gowns.''
On occasion, the impulse is from a designer: ``Last year we were very Chanel-minded; next year we won't be,'' she says decidedly. Other trends are grass-roots. ``When I travel I go to flea markets and watch the people in the streets.''
Designers in all kinds of fields listen to her now, but ``it was tough in the beginning,'' she says. ``Rather than tell them about their own industry, I will tell them what's happening in cars and lingerie and this and that. Then they listen. People know what's going on in their own fields.'' An example: When denim hit high fashion, car dealers tried denim seat covers in cars: ``That was very successful,'' says Roche.
She has been predicting the recently arrived shift to more feminine styles and colors -- and away from the dress-for-success look -- for some time: ``against all odds, when everyone was talking about `dress like a man.' ''
One hint was the success of Victoria's Secret, then just a small catalog for frilly lingerie. ``They were selling like hotcakes. That said to me that there was a desire for more- feminine things, even though people were walking around in neckties and buttoned-down shirts.'' Another was the success of Linda Ronstadt's album of old songs, called ``What's New.''
``Now everybody's doing the old songs. That's part of the feeling of femininity and nostalgia.''
The masculine styles and colors that took root in past years were expressed in all design aspects of life.
Roche gives as an example the Pontiac Fiero, ``a very macho angular masculine car that came in red, white, and black. And that kind of car belongs in red, white, and black,'' she says.
The masculine trend was also seen in high-tech home furnishings: ``things on wheels, of glass, no textures, no softness.'' Restaurants also exemplified this trend, in what she calls ``the steak-and-brew and all-you-can-eat mentality.''
Now in restaurants there's an emphasis on flowers on the table, she says, and food placed artistically on the plate. And ``cars will become more rounded -- you'll see it. The colors will be lighter. Remember the pastel cars in the '50s: pale pink, aqua . . . ? They were real dreamboats, powder puffs. They were glamorous cars -- very feminine. . . .
``You don't tell creative people anything, so I dug out pictures of all the old '50s colors, and they all went `A-a-a-h-h-h-h!!!' ''
Another area where you'll be seeing color changes: bathroom fixtures. ``June convinced us that the feminine approach, the soft approach, the tender approach to color is the right direction to go in,'' says John Laughton of American Standard Plumbing Products. He says Roche helped them develop ``honeydew'' (a pale green) and blond (``basically a yellow that has had so much white added to it that it's almost become a neutral''). Wall coverings have been influenced, too -- particularly in the trend toward ``white backgrounds as opposed to off-white. It ties in with the cleaner color look,'' according to Richard Felber of Richard Felber designs.
Roche also predicts that the 80's and '90s will be the era of color, pointing out that you can now buy Sony radios and electric fans in lavender and pink. ``Suddenly color became a hot subject in the last three years. Finally color is coming into its own,'' she says.
Part of the importance of the color of an object is that it affects the way you feel about it. For instance, says Roche, you want a vacuum cleaner to look light and easy to use, which is why pastels and light colors are popular. ``But for gardening equipment and athletic equipment, anything to do with sports, you want it to look powerful -- reds, yellows, AstroTurf green. You wouldn't want your lawn mower to be pink; you'd think it would break on you. But a red lawn mower, that would be fun.''
Some of the interest in color has come from the success of ``Color Me Beautiful'' and other personal color-analysis consultants. This approach, which has been around in various forms for many years, is a ``grasslands movement,'' she says. While not popular in New York (``You can't tell New Yorkers anything''); analysis of one's most flattering makeup and clothing colors is common in other places. ``If you go to Idaho and Oklahoma, the whole town has has had their colors done,'' she says.
Color analysis was the focus of Roche's show last year for the auto as well as fashion industry. George Moon, executive designer at General Motors -- who says of Roche, ``June is kind of our eyes and ears'' -- predicts that color analysis may affect his industry as well.
``People are more conscious of color and how it enhances them,'' Mr. Moon says. ``It makes us more conscious of the color we pick.'' He believes some consumers may start saying, ``I should drive a certain color car.''
For next year, Roche advises women to go for a monochromatic look. ``We're going back to dyed-to-match outfits,'' she says. Twin sets and gloves that match ``to continue the line'' will be in evidence.
She also advises people who travel to think about what colors are appropriate in different parts of the world. The key is light, which is different in different places, she says.
For instance, ``there's so much sun in Florida that it absorbs the colors they're wearing. In New York, it would glare.'' In Italy, people wear shades like ``loden'' and ``curry''; ``you'd really stick out wearing your pink Pappagallos and Lilly Pulitzer dresses.''
Europeans are trying to learn how to wear colors more, says Roche. But you'll still fit in better there if you stay on the subtle side. ``We tend to be more exuberant with our colors,'' she says.
``In the last six to seven years, we were doing very European colors. I think it was very good for our taste palette to be washed by those smoky colors. Now, when we go back to brighter colors, we'll be more tasteful.''