Color fashion: How did yellow go from pleasing "light & life" to unpopular, sinister?

C C Offline

EXCERPT (Kevin Jackson): This is the fifth major work [Yellow: The History of a Color] on the history of colours written over the last two decades by the eminent French scholar Michel Pastoureau, and, he implies in his introduction, it may be the last. Taken together, the earlier volumes on blue (2001), black (2009), green (2013) and red (2017), plus the new book, represent ‘an edifice’ that he has been working to build for half a century: a history of colours [...] Whatever misgivings one might have about the books themselves, they amount to an ambitious project deserving not merely respect but even a touch of awe.

[...] Pastoureau’s main aim is not simply to record how hues have been used, but to seek out the various values they have expressed and embodied in different times. In very broad strokes, he proposes that yellow was on the whole associated with benevolent, life-affirming qualities in the years up to the fifth century AD; then, from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, it was an ‘ambiguous’ colour; since then, many of the negative connotations that developed in the Middle Ages have hardened ... Modern opinion polls confirm that it is one of the least favourite colours of all nations.

The first section, ‘A Beneficial Color’, suggests that from the time that Palaeolithic cave paintings were produced to about the fifth century AD, yellow had pleasing associations with light and life and plenty [...] The Judeo-Christian cultures were less given to celebrating the colour. The Bible is all but silent on yellow, as it is on most colours. The original Hebrew Scriptures refer to a few materials celebrated for their colour – gold, bronze, ivory – but are almost entirely lacking in chromatic adjectives [...] The second section, titled ‘An Ambiguous Color’, covers the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. It was in this time that yellow, still largely absent from religious culture, eventually became a major feature of heraldry. [...] The most significant development was the increasing association of yellow with vice and evil – often with the deadly sin of envy [...] The third and final section, which examines the long and complex period from the 14th century to the present day, is entitled ‘An Unpopular Color’, though this is a little misleading as it mentions more than a few moments when yellow became highly fashionable.

Barely forty pages are devoted to the years since 1900. The Gilets Jaunes scrape in on the penultimate page and there are passing glimpses of yellow sporting outfits, the yellow liveries of centrist political parties, yellow taxis, the Nazi yellow star and the widespread use of yellow on warning signs because of its high visibility, especially when paired with black letters.

As in his previous books, Pastoureau is hampered by his almost complete lack of interest in the non-Francophone world. There’s no mention, for instance, of the Yellow Pages, only a single reference to the Sinophobic idea of the ‘yellow peril’ [...] Popular culture barely seems to exist for Pastoureau. He says nothing about one of the most significant deployments of yellow in mass entertainment over the last thirty years: as the standard flesh tone for the characters in The Simpsons, a topic ably discussed by Alexander Theroux in one of his own witty books about colour.

Cinema? There is no reference to the once-notorious soft-porn movie I am Curious (Yellow), nor to John Ford’s classic western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or to the Yellow Brick Road of The Wizard of Oz and Sir Elton John. Speaking of pop, The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ is missing, as are Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’, Donovan’s silly hit ‘Mellow Yellow’ and (apologies) ‘(Is This the Way to) Amarillo’.

Non-Francophone literature is also excluded from the feast [...] Visually, the book is generally handsome, occasionally gorgeous. Some of the paintings included ... Yellow is worth buying as much for its sumptuous images as its scholarship, and it makes for pleasantly soothing reflections in the anxious days wondering whether Operation Yellowhammer will be triggered. (MORE - details)
Anu Offline
Sounds like a myopic eurocentric coffee table book for fools
Leigha Offline
Ahhh, what is this nonsense? Yellow is the color of sunshine, sunflowers, and happiness. Why, it's the color of hope! Big Grin
Yazata Offline
I've always liked yellow. It's a happy color, suggestive of sunshine.
Syne Offline
Too many fashionistas like the movie Green Lantern?
Zinjanthropos Online
I don't think Donovan singing 'mad about fourteen' in Mellow Yellow would go over to good these days.
I've never thought of colors being associated with anything sinister, well maybe Yellow Fever. Is gold still the yellow metal? Does things to folks I guess.

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