All dressed in yellow


Here is a piece I wrote a while ago about the colour yellow (and shifting perspectives on colour generally).

For a long time, I like many people tended to define my “favourite” colours as those which I most often liked to wear. And yellow was definitely not one of those shades. I had nothing personally against yellow, nor was I really aware of yellow carrying any negative associations for me: I regarded it as a cheerful, sunny colour, but not one that I “could” or “should” wear. And perhaps that was the problem: somewhere along the line I’d allowed myself to form the erroneous proscriptive opinion that yellow could not be one of “my” colours, that it did not suit me, and so therefore I ignored it. 

Peerie Flooers – all about the yellow?

One of the many things that changed radically when I started designing knitting patterns was my attitude to colour. My own trials and errors with stranded knitting taught me an awful lot about how colours worked together. In 2011 I knitted a hat – Peerie Flooers – and the finished design really surprised me. I’d used a strong egg-yolk yellow in the hat simply because it seemed the most appropriate shade to use for the centres of its simple flowers. I’d used less yellow yarn than other shades, yellow featured in fewer rows, but the more I looked at the hat the more I realised it was really all about the yellow. Because it formed the focal point of each floral motif, because the crown resolved itself into this shade, that egg-yolk yellow somehow defined the hat. From this experience I took away a few things: that yellow works really well as a focal or accent shade in stranded colourwork, that it also has a natural tendency to take over and dominate a palette, but most of all—and most surprisingly—that I actually really liked it.

embracing yellow in Peerie Flooers

I began using more yellow in my design work, I began wearing yellow (and enjoyed doing so), I started creating yellow yarns, and as my attitude to yellow shifted and evolved, so did my attitude to colour generally.  . . .

me, in Glenan

. . . I became very aware of shades and tones as the sources of some very strong personal opinions, and I also became interested in the way that such opinions are never objective or disinterested but always have distinctive human histories. For our attitudes to colour are bound up with our situations and locations, with the stories we tell ourselves, and with the cultural values we feel we share, but which might also be used to divide us. And, for a wide variety of reasons, yellow is one of those particularly divisive colours—one which is likely to elicit strong reactions of “oh, yes, I absolutely love that shade,” or “oh no, I’d never wear that.” Why might that be? Here’s a brief (and partial) history of what it might mean to be dressed in yellow.

ochre Paleolithic cave painting at Lascaux

Unlike blues and purples, yellow is a fairly “easy” colour to acquire. The ochres that adorn cave walls were among the very first pigments used by Paleolithic painters, and many early dyestuffs  are of yellow hue. Anyone who has worked with natural dyes will know that it can be quite hard not to produce a yellow from the leaves, roots and bark of many different plants, but the easiest and most popular yellow dye was weld, whose seeds are a common feature of Neolithic archeology.

Reseda Luteola / Weld

In ancient Rome—where colour had become part of a fairly rigid cultural taxonomy—yellow was a shade firmly associated with what was feminine. Weld and broom were routinely used to dye the clothes of many women, while prestigious and expensive saffron dye—producing fabrics of a rich orangey-yellow hue—was reserved for the stola crocata worn by elegant Roman matrons.

Yellow robes abound in the frescoes of Pompeii . . .

If, for ancient Romans, yellow was a colour linked to distinctions of gender, for medieval Christians it came to mark a difference of religion. By the Middle Ages, yellow was regarded as a deeply untrustworthy colour, associated with ideas of duplicity, deception and criminality in its broadest sense. Across Christian Europe, yellow was represented as the colour of treachery, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the conventions that governed depictions of Judas Iscariot, who, in an apostle line-up, can generally be picked out by his red hair and yellow robes.

Juan de Juanes. The Last Supper (1560)

If yellow was the shade of Judas, who betrayed Christ, then by extension it was the colour of those who might deny him. In range of Christian contexts across Europe, from the early medieval period through to the seventeenth century, yellow is a colour most often associated with Judaism and Jews.

Konrad Witz, The Synagogue. Panel from work of 1435. Basel Kunstmuseum.

In medieval Europe, then, yellow was the colour of heresy, and as such became the foundational shade of the era’s distinctive antisemitism. Colour codes, separating tribes, peoples and religions had long been written into the sumptuary laws of different nations, but the use of identifying marks and badges to distinguish Jews was surely the most systematic. In Persia, Jews were required to wear yellow belts or fringes, in England, a piece of yellow taffeta, in France, a yellow wool-felt ring or rouelle on their outer garment, while in German speaking countries, a juddenhut (Jew’s hat) or yellow badge.

Expulsion of the Jews from France, 1182. Miniature from a manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France. c.1320-5. Bibliotheque Royale de Beligique

The age of enlightenment and revolution also heralded the era of Jewish emancipation, and, by the end of the eighteenth century, the use of the yellow badge as mark of Jewish difference had all but disappeared. Its 20th century revival by the Nazis was an explicit method of dehumanising and isolating European Jews, facilitating their systematic segregation, ghettoisation, and ultimately, mass murder.

Star of David that Simona Weissmann was forced to wear in Romania between 1941-45. After joining the axis alliance in 1940, Antonescu’s fascist government pursued systematic and violent antisemitic policies, including pogroms. Collection of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Yet while, in the Christian West, the long-standing negative cultural connotations of yellow enabled it to become the shade of Nazi persecution, in many parts of the East it was a colour very powerfully and positively associated with ideas of the omnipotent and divine. The West might have linked yellow to cowardice and weakness, but in China it was the colour of heroism and nobility. In ancient Chinese culture, yellow was said to generate Yin and Ying, to act as the centre of the Universe, and therefore seemed naturally symbolic of imperial greatness. Yellow was also the colour of the robes of the emperors—a shade which, across the centuries, became indelibly bound up with dynastic power and prestige.

Emperor Quianlong c.1775. Sixth emperor of the Quing dynasty, who ruled China between 1735 and 1796.

As is so often case in matters of aesthetics, where the East leads, the West merely follows in its train. In yellow’s case, it is very interesting to note that the colour’s use as a badge or sign of religious difference declines at around the same time that Europe became gripped by a fascination with all things Chinese—including luxurious yellow textiles. Chinoiserie was a defining and widespread mid eighteenth-century trend, and, while yellow is a colour very infrequently used for late seventeenth-century dresses, the high fashions of the 1750s and 60s suddenly abound with gorgeous yellow silks, embroidered in what wealthy French and English ladies regarded as the “Chinese” style.

 Spitalfields dress of yellow silk in the “Chinese” style, 1760s-70s. Kyoto costume institute.

In the 1760s, yellow was an increasingly popular choice for the dresses of fashionable women, but by the following decade, it had also become a shade that thousands of young European men also wanted to wear. The reason for this is that yellow was a colour notoriously sported by the hero of Goethe’s, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (Sorrows of Young Werther) (1774) a novel whose cultural impact was huge and quite unprecedented. As well as reaching an enormous readership, Goethe’s epistolary novel spawned a wide range of sentimental Werther merchandise, a Werther perfume, and most notably, the Werthertracht (Werther costume). The Werthertracht incorporated pale yellow Nankeen trousers (the name of this cotton fabric being an obvious corruption of its Chinese origins), high boots, blue jacket and a  yellow waistcoat.

Werther muses

The yellow waistcoat became the signature of any self-respecting eighteenth-century man of feeling, for, like Goethe’s tragic hero, the man who wore yellow could also be said to wear his heart on his sleeve.

Waistcoat of yellow silk, 1770s.  Nasjonalmuseet, Norway

Yellow’s fashionable status declined markedly across Europe during the nineteenth century and, in the 1880s and 90s, when polls about such matters were conducted, it was often listed at the bottom of “favourite colour” surveys.  But yellow re-emerged as a fashionable colour in the 1910s, and the reason for this, once again, was the East, or rather, the fantastical, undefined projection of a chimeric East by the Western imagination. Perhaps no-one was better at expressing the persuasive aesthetic power of this orientalist fantasy than Parisian designer, Paul Poiret.

Paul Poiret’s  orientalist fantasies prominently featured yellow

Though he often denied the link, the orientalist turn of Poiret’s work after 1910 was clearly a response to the enormously popular Ballet Russes production of Schéhérazade that same year.  Fluid garments, turban-shaped headpieces, and decontextualised harem pants and kimonos immediately began to appear in Poiret’s collections—all in bold, bright hues, including yellow.

Poiret dress from 1913. Victoria and Albert Museum

Poiret’s orientalist designs drew on a range of generic Western stereotypes regarding the “exotic” nature of eastern cultures: he explictly wanted his work to suggest the mythic, the foreign, the imaginary. In 1911, he hosted a lavish extravaganza called the “Thousand and Second Night” in which all attendees were required to wear “oriental” fancy dress and where Poiret himself, in the garb of a “sultan” presented each guest with a bottle of his new branded fragrance Nuit Persane.

yellow: the shade of Poiret’s imaginary orient

Poiret’s reimagining of western fashion as a sort of lavish seraglio, with himself sat at the centre, perhaps says a lot about him personally, as well as the haute couture milieu within which he lived and worked, but his use of bold lines and body-freeing planar shapes in women’s clothing was certainly innovative, important, and hugely influential.

Poiret illustration, 1913

By the early decades of the twentieth century, yellow had come to be seen as a distinctively modern colour, and in sporting contexts particularly so. The story of the origins of the Tour de France’s famous yellow jersey has been told many times, and the precise timing of the introduction of the maillot jaune remains the subject of some debate, but really, the ins and outs of the narrative don’t matter: what signifies is that the jersey was a huge marketing success first for Tour organiser, Henri Desgrange (who designed the jersey to echo the distinctive colour of his newspaper l’Auto) and later, for the Tour itself (which it is impossible to visualise without the yellow jersey worn by the winner of the GC race).

Maillot jaune artwork by the Handmade Cyclist

 In the Tour’s early years, the yellow jerseys worn by GC leaders were knitted, like other sportswear, from wool at a fine gauge but, in 1947, Tour sponsor and thread manufacturer, Sofil, produced yellow jerseys that had been manufactured from their own signature blend of wool with new synthetic fibres. Tour riders declared themselves unhappy with Sofil’s technological innovation, arguing that long days on a bike in the heat required pure wool, with its superior wicking properties. After taking the lead in the GC race, legendary Breton rider, Louis “Louison” Bobet, flatly refused to wear Sofil’s “artificial” yellow jersey, insisting that he would only ever ride in natural wool. Conscious of the potential effect of bad publicity on their brand, Sofil agreed to manufacture an alternative pure wool yellow jersey, and did so very rapidly, overnight. The next day, Bobet rode out in his custom-knitted woolly yellow jersey, emblazoned with the Sofil logo.

Like Bobet, I certainly enjoy the distinctive qualities of wool, but I would not wish to insist upon the use of one fibre over another, or ever be too proscriptive about what we should make and wear. For I feel that we must simply use the fibres and the colours that we are drawn to and love best.  We may associate different shades with a wide range of different meanings. We are bound to have our favourites, and to enjoy certain colours more than others. But we may also think a particular colour is not for us; regard it unquestioningly with a deep ambivalence, and then somehow reach a turning point, after which we begin to see it in a new light. We may feel that we could never wear yellow, and yet we might find ourselves, at some point, knitting and enjoying our very own yellow jersey.


Further reading
Alexandra Loske, Colour: A Visual History (2019)
Michel Pastoureau, Yellow: The History of a Colour (2019)
Kasia St Clair, The Secret Lives of Colour (2016)
Paul Poiret, King of Fashion (Met Museum exhibition)

 . . . and listening
All Dressed in Yellow, by Shetland musicians, Fiddlers Bid