The True Carolina Blue

| February 20, 2014 | 6 Comments

BeatDuke 215x300 The True Carolina BlueIn preparation for the UNC/Duke basketball game tonight, Tar Heels all over the world will be donning their favorite Carolina blue clothes and accessories. But which Carolina Blue is the question I try to answer.

Tonight is the most anticipated basketball game of the year, when Tar Heel fans all over the world will be watching UNC play Duke in the last game of the regular season. Every year this match-up is exciting, nerve-wracking, and often swearword-inducing, and this one will be even more so after the buzzer-beating basket that gave Duke the inconceivable win the last time these two teams met at the Dean Dome. I have had butterflies in my stomach all day, and the 7:00 pm tip-off could not come fast enough.

As I got dressed this morning, I knew my entire outfit would have to be an ensemble of beautiful light blue, top to bottom, in preparation of the big night. It is a superstition of mine that the more interlocking NC’s, Ramses and Tar Heel feet I am wearing, the better UNC will play. I was amazed at the many Carolina Blue options I had to choose from. Growing up in Chapel Hill, attending Carolina, and living here now, has given me an incredible assortment of Carolina blue t-shirts, sweat pants, socks, hats, pajamas, sweatshirts, hoodies, jackets, jewelry and yes, even undergarments. But none of them match! They are all varying hues of light blue, ranging from the lightest, baby blue to, dare I say it, one that comes a little too close to Duke blue for my comfort. The Carolina Blue I grew up with is much lighter than the one that is used now.

As a graphic designer, I am very sensitive to color, and this inconsistency needed to be resolved. Therefore, I decided to go on a quest, in honor of tonight’s game, and figure out what color is in fact, true Carolina Blue. This was more challenging that I ever expected.

Pantone278 300x300 The True Carolina Blue

Pantone Color #278

I started my journey, like most journeys start these days, by Googling “What is color Carolina Blue?” Several sites appeared, the first being Wikipedia that stated the official Carolina Blue was Pantone Color #278. On the same page, there was a nice summary of the origin of Carolina Blue. “Use of the light blue color at UNC dates from 1795 when the Dialectic (blue) and Philanthropic (white) Societies of the university chose representative colors. Society members would wear a blue or white ribbon at university functions, and blue or white ribbons were attached to the diplomas of graduates. When football became a popular collegiate sport in the 1880s, the UNC football team adopted the light blue and white of the Di-Phi Societies as the school colors.

Searching further, I found one document to support this claim that Pantone Color 278 is the official color of UNC. It was from UNC’s Office of Trademarks and Licensing that states, “The University’s colors are Carolina Blue and White. While there is a range of opinion as to what exactly is the true shade of Carolina Blue, from a licensing standpoint, it is Pantone 278.” TwoLogos1 300x178 The True Carolina BlueSaying there is a “range of opinion” is putting it mildly. I found another document online called The University of North Carolina Identity Standards Manual, and they state that the official color of UNC is Pantone 542, which is definitely more aqua. It is obvious that the colors used for the UNC logo on the two documents themselves are completely different. In my search, I also discovered that UNC’s Athletics Office mostly uses Pantone 297, and on occasion, 271 or 298. UNC Hospitals use Pantone 543. There was a lot more “official” variety than I ever expected to find.

TwoJerseys 300x156 The True Carolina BlueTo get this question answered, clearly I was going to have to visit the experts on UNC’s campus and Franklin Street in person. My first stop was the Carolina Basketball Museum, and I photographed every uniform that was displayed. The colors ranged from Pete Chilcutt’s almost turquoise practice shirt, to Brian Reese’s powder blue jersey. There was nothing consistent about the Carolina Blue used in the jerseys, even from season to season. Our uniforms were actually not uniform at all! This was no help, so I headed to East Franklin Street, where shops selling UNC clothing fill the block.

The Shrunken Head Boutique started selling UNC T-shirts on Franklin Street over forty years ago. It was my favorite store to browse in as a child, and I was such a regular there, that when I was about seven years old, owner Shelton Henderson let me sit behind the counter and be the cashier for an hour. His daughter Genny Wrenn works there now, and I asked her, “What is Carolina Blue?” Her answer was simply, “Just look at the sky! That light blue is Carolina Blue.” Us Chapel Hillians have a favorite saying that goes, “If God is not a Tar Heel, then why is the sky Carolina Blue?” Sounds simple enough. The irony is that even on a perfectly cloudless day, the color of the sky varies as much as Carolina Blue does.

BlueSkies1 The True Carolina Blue

The sky over the Dean Dome vs. the same sky behind me over UNC Campus.

NikeJersey 300x287 The True Carolina Blue

My next stop was Carolina Pride Sportswear. Owner John Hudson agrees with Genny that the lighter blue is what he thinks of as true Carolina Blue. When asked why it has darkened over the years, his theory was the influence of television. Back in the seventies when games were just being broadcast, the light blue did not show up well against the white on a black and white TV. Perhaps the slow progression towards a darker color is in fact due to the importance of contrast for visibility in media such as TV and the Internet. John added that the darker blue on the Nike uniforms today is what most of his younger customers consider the true Carolina Blue, so that is the color that sells the best in his shop.

I crossed the street and headed into Johnny T-Shirt, a shop that has been selling UNC merchandise since 1983. UNC junior, Arthur Iannacone was cashiering, and he pointed to a baby blue colored shirt when I asked him to show me the real Carolina Blue. “Anything darker looks too close to Duke.”

BabyBlue 300x229 The True Carolina Blue

Johnny T-Shirt’s Baby Blue T-Shirt and Hat

Nevertheless, he said, “The baby blue is a little bit feminine, and guys don’t like it as much, and they’ll go for the darker one. Though the girls always go for the baby blue.” He also noted that most shirts purchased there have the interlocking NC logo on it somewhere, and that is generally what customers look for instead of the color.

My last stop was to visit Kathy Sapp, owner of Chapel Hill Sportswear. She laughed sympathetically when I asked what is the real Carolina Blue, as if she knew very well the dilemma I was facing in my quest. She pointed to a small swatch of blue from of the UNC Men’s Basketball schedule that they give out there, and said that ever since she had been a student at UNC in the early seventies, that was what she always thought of as Carolina Blue. She made the point, though, that regardless of whichever color true Carolina Blue really is, Tar Heel fans have accepted the fact that there is no one color of Carolina Blue. Most of her customers buy a shirt for the design, not the color, as long as it is in the range of acceptable light blues. Don Jones, a long-time Chapel Hill resident, who was shopping there for ACC Tournament clothing as a surprise for his wife Bobby, jumped into our conversation. “It’s never been baby blue. It’s French Blue. That is the classic Carolina color. Then Alexander [Julian] got involved and it’s pretty, but it’s not French blue. It darkened up. Then they added the dark blue trim, and the traditionalists don’t like it – that’s nine miles down the road. But that’s where we are. Anything less than medium blue is a Tar Heel color. Anything more is a Duke color. You’re not going to match. That’s it to me. Lighter is Carolina, darker is Duke. Pick your shade, throw your accessories on, and go to the game!”

TrueBlueGowns 300x202 The True Carolina Blue

Alexander Julian and His True Blue Gowns

Famous clothing designer and colorist, Chapel Hill native and UNC alumnus Alexander Julian did redesign the UNC Basketball Uniform at the request of Dean Smith beginning in the 1991-1992 season. But even he is not happy with the darker, greenish color that Carolina Blue had become in recent years. According to UNC News, Alexander was “determined that his son, Will, was not going to graduate in May 2011 wearing an aqua gown.” The end result is called the True Blue gown and it is definitely a step in the right direction.

The answer to my question, however, was not found. Ask any two Chapel Hill natives what Carolina Blue is, and you will most likely get two distinct answers. But each response will be passionate and convincing as they describe that perfect hue that Tar Heel fans adore and claim as their own. I would love to see UNC enforce the color standards of their well-established brand that has fueled a multi-million dollar industry of Carolina merchandise, by insisting on a consistent Tar Heel Blue color throughout all applications and stick to it. Looking out into the packed crowd at the Dean Dome, what a impressive vision it would be if every fan’s Tar Heel outfit matched perfectly. Realistically, though, the question of what color that would be would never be agreed upon. For me, I’m going to take Don’s sound advice and just pick my favorite shade of blue and go watch the game! GO HEELS!

ColorPoll The True Carolina Blue

Which Color is the True Carolina Blue?

Feel free to take the unofficial Chapel Hill Recorder Poll below and vote on what you think is the real Carolina Blue. Evidently, there is no correct answer.

In Your Opinion, What Color is the True Carolina Blue?

View Results

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It’s not just the color Carolina Blue that has changed. Click here to read the Chapel Hill Recorder article: “What’s in a Uniform”

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  1. ronnie steele says:

    This will seem like sacrilege to many, but I always thought Carolina blue referred to the incomparable carolina sky!

  2. Derek says:

    Sure thing. I passed your link to some UNC alums and C.H. native friends. They like! Oops for my color gray typo. I’ll blame spellcheck but it’s really age and being out of college for too long! I’d like to do a similar blog for my school and the surrounding part of Greensboro.

  3. Derek says:

    Interesting! And a local debate going back many years.
    It seems that school colors evolve and change over time, going back and forth between colors. When my father was at UNC in the late 50’s, the color was very much “baby blue,” almost a light grey. We are roughly the same age, you and I, and I remember going to the Shrunken Head and the old grey blue was still popular, but UNC sports uniforms were almost turquoise! (*sighs at memories of the sadly gone Rathskellar before home games*)

    My own alma mater, Guilford College has had the same color evolution over the years. When I was there in the early-mid 90’s, the colors were described as “Guilford Garnet and Quaker Grey,” a maroon/burgundy and gunmetal grey…a light-ish sweatshirt grey. You can see these colors in our old football “uniforms” from 1892. However, over time, it became a crimson red and we were often called the “Crimson Quakers” by students and sports staff during the 1940’s-60’s.
    Now, our official color (forget the pantone #) is back to maroon/burgundy and the grey is very dark charcoal grey, almost black, yet visit the bookstore on campus, and shades on school gear vary from fire engine red/crimson to the traditional burgundy, and all shades of grey. Much depends on the clothing manufacturer it seems.

    I’m rambling, but my point is, school colors seem to evolve, change, backtrack, then evolve again!

    Great blog BTW!

    • Thanks for your take, Derek! School colors certainly do seem to evolve, and I think more so with blues, that are inherently difficult to match. Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it!

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