I first saw it at London Fashion Week. At JW Anderson’s spring '20 show, among the Ziggy Stardust metallic suiting and corsetry with diamanté detailing, there it was: the perfect yellow dress. So pale in color it was almost margarine, the dress – an iridescent mohair-knit mini with spaghetti straps – made me feel nostalgic for a summer holiday I was yet to go on. Paired with wraparound sandals and a single drop-down earring, the dress spoke for itself. It was the epitome of a throw-on-and-go piece that demands nothing but gives everything. I’ve fallen hard for many a dress in my time, but something about that effervescent yellow percolated in my mind all weekend.
It was just the beginning, though: as the season wore on, yellow dresses kept popping up, like daffodils blooming in spring. At Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, an ethereal cloud of sherbet lemon organza; at Richard Quinn, a gargantuan buttercup rosette. Supriya Lele gave us a cat’s cradle of sheer saffron, while Christopher Kane’s acidic gown hinted at danger. Emilia Wickstead presented sophisticated pale sunlight and bold, banana-flavored Angel Delight, and Molly Goddard served up yet more frothy semolina shades. As London Fashion Week drew to a close, there was no denying the serotonin-boosting appeal of the yellow dress – but that hasn’t always been the case. Contrary to its contemporary associations with sunshine and summer, the color yellow has a far darker history.
Yellow’s origins were lofty enough: Chinese emperors used the saffron plant to dye their robes and, later, the color was reserved for the daughters of European royal families as the dye only took to the finest of silks (peasants who tried to dye their cotton garments yellow only succeeded in turning them gray). Yet all that glitters is not gold and the hue’s reputation was sullied over time as the yellow robes said to be worn by Venus, the goddess of love, mutated into a discriminatory marker for maligned sex workers. Great artists of the medieval and Renaissance periods used yellow to portray sinister moments like betrayal – Judas often appeared shrouded in the color – terror, sickness, and the apocalypse, and, in its darkest days, yellow became a way to single out and ostracize Jewish people in Germany during WWII.
In the natural world, too, colors which sit beside yellow on the spectrum mix with it to create putrid shades that bring to mind acid, pus, poison, and toxic foods and flowers, causing revulsion and fear. Shakaila Forbes-Bell, fashion psychologist and founder of Fashion is Psychology, notes that it’s the color most associated with urgency and alertness. "Having a greater effect on attention compared to cooler colors like blue and grey, yellow has been proven to induce feelings of high arousal which activates the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) in the brain, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, mobility and readiness to respond," she explains. Think of the use of yellow in everything from road signs and horror films (Kill Bill, we’re looking at you) to graphic designer Harvey Ball's 1963 smiley face, later adopted as the symbol of rave culture. What gets hearts beating faster than ecstasy and two-stepping?
For these reasons and more, we’ve long been told that yellow isn’t a flattering color to wear. So how did that all change? One word: Beyoncé. When she dropped her 2016 album Lemonade, she shook up more than just the music industry. In the video for "Hold Up", rolling down a bustling sidewalk in a flurry of marigold ruffles, swinging a baseball bat with a huge grin on her face, she kickstarted an obsession with yellow that we’re still seeing the effects of today. "Yellow has always been one of my favorite colors," Bea Åkerlund, Beyoncé’s stylist for the video, told Refinery29. "It’s bold, brings joy, and stands out from the crowd." Of dressing the musician in the showstopping off-the-shoulder plissé gown designed by Roberto Cavalli’s creative director Peter Dundas, she said: "It took precedence over all other pieces of clothing in the shot; it represented everything I was trying to convey in one look and worked perfectly with the character’s narrative." Åkerlund’s favorite yellow dress moment from history? "Belle from Beauty and the Beast."
According to Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director at Matches Fashion: "If you look back through fashion history, designers like Dior and Chanel in the '50s included yellow in their collections and it was a popular color in the 1960s, after which it slightly fell out of favor." Beyoncé’s Lemonade moment sparked yellow’s comeback tour, with notable women subsequently championing the color at high-profile events. "One of the main reasons people like or dislike a color is based on common associations," Forbes-Bell says, "and yellow started to dominate pop culture from around five years ago when it was heavily embraced by powerful and popular figures. From Rihanna’s 2015 Guo Pei Met Gala dress to Beyoncé’s Balmain hoodie at Coachella in 2018 and, more recently, Michelle Obama’s 2019 diamond-encrusted Schiaparelli gown, we’ve continually seen yellow associated with popular and likable people, which has created a new experience around the color, causing us all to become more drawn to it."
From Ashish to Chloé, the catwalks of spring '17 – the fashion month that succeeded Lemonade’s release – were sizzling with dresses in sherbet lemon, canary, and mustard hues. Let's not forget, however, some pinnacle Big Bird moments in fashion history. She may have reset the sartorial clock but Beyoncé wasn’t the first to inspire think pieces and a social media storm with her yellow dress. Anyone worth their fashion salt will remember the 2003 image of Kate Moss in New York, photographed on her way to an AnOther Magazine party in honor of Gwyneth Paltrow. "She had on something like a pale-yellow 1950s-style dress with a strapless bodice and a chiffon skirt just below the knee...a real lady dress," the designer Bella Freud remembers in Angela Buttolph's book, Kate Moss: Style. The dress caused so much fanfare that it became the inspiration for one of the sellout pieces of Moss' hugely successful Topshop collaboration four years later.
What about Kate Hudson’s turn as magazine journalist Andie Anderson in the 2003 film How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days? Her buttercup satin gown sealed the deal, making Matthew McConaughey’s Benjamin Barry fall in love with her. Ridiculous character names aside, the dress – liquid gold with a bum-skimming low back and criss-cross straps – created by costume designer Karen Patch, is as memorable as the film itself. Then there's Michelle Williams’ yellow gown at the 2006 Oscars. "[It] was a pivotal moment," Kingham muses, "as at that point it hadn’t really been on the radar as much as an evening wear color option." The dress, a fluted and frilly saffron Vera Wang gown, "felt very modern and elegant and since then we’ve seen a lot more yellow on the catwalks, especially from designers such as Erdem, Emilia Wickstead, and Molly Goddard who have embraced the color."
Fast-forward to 2018 and hot on the heels of the omnipresent obsession with millennial pink – the soft blush hue used everywhere from fashion to beauty, interiors to lifestyle branding – came Gen Z yellow. While christening a color after an entire generation in the interests of marketing felt fairly nauseating, there was something refreshing in the fact that the shade's popularity didn’t come from influencers, editors, and designers but rather from young creatives and the 'grass roots' of social media.
Writer Haley Nahman coined the term when she noticed a shift in palette across her usually bubblegum pink-hued Instagram feed. "Yellow is the color that best represents hope, optimism, and joy. It's the universal symbol of sunshine and warmth," Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute, told Refinery29 at the time. "All of these characteristics make it a symbolic representation of what Gen Zers are looking for – a renewed hope for the future and the energy to engage in a purposeful way." From celebrity fashion collaborations to photographers’ choice of lens, "visual culture really pushed yellow forward as an Instagram-friendly bright that young people feel comfortable wearing," notes Jenny Clark, head of color at global trends forecaster WGSN. "The unflattering association has disappeared as more consumers understand which shades suit their skin tone."
Now that our aversion to yellow has been replaced with a sunnier outlook, we continue to see a celebration of the color permeate our wardrobes. For Kingham, there were two standout moments at spring '20: "Gabriela Hearst’s simple yellow wrap dress and Cecile Bahnsen’s organza babydoll dress." Clark meanwhile champions the king of color, Sies Marjan: "The yellows in the collection were very rich and warm and made to feel extremely luxurious on satins and embossed crocodile. It was a very contemporary and directional use of yellow." Besides the aforementioned JW Anderson coquettish mohair mini, our favorite piece has to be New York designer Mara Hoffman’s Violet dress, a banana-yellow organic cotton number featuring balloon sleeves and a knot across the bust. The piece – so easy, so simple – feels like the epitome of holiday dressing, so cruelly out of reach right now. As Eiseman says, a yellow dress is the perfect symbol of renewed hope – something that we’re all in need of, now more than ever.