Essays

Is Yellow the Perfect Color of Modern Luxury?

Is it actually possible that the color yellow could be the true hue of modern luxury? Gold, sure. But yellow? Seriously? Don’t roll your eyes, dear readers. There are more layers to yellow than you might imagine.

The first associations that come to mind about yellow are straightforward: it’s the color of sunlight, daisies, dandelions, tulips, and sunflowers. It evokes Easter, and fields of daffodils, and springtime. Warblers, orioles, goldfinches, and new-born chicks. Lemon drops. Buttercream frosting. Sunlight reflected on water. Ice-cold lemonade. And summer. In Western culture, it signifies simplicity, optimism, hope, warmth and happiness; amusement, gentleness, and spontaneity. In Chinese culture, in addition to happiness, yellow signifies glory, wisdom, harmony and culture.

The word yellow is rooted in Proto-Indo-European, a now-defunct language believed to be the ancestor to several modern languages, including English and Greek.  It means bright, gleaming and “to cry out.” Yellow definitely cries out for attention.

And it usually gets it.

Yellow captures more attention than any other color because the human eye processes the color yellow first. It can be seen easily from a great distance, and at high speeds. Because it’s so functional, yellow is the color of objects that need to be seen from far away: taxis, school buses, tennis balls, hard hats, crime scene tape, traffic signs, lane markers on the highway, and neon signs. Yellow is the most common shade of flowers, because it is the color most visible to the insects needed for pollination (wear it to an outdoor party at your own risk of bee stings).

There was a time in history when yellow was an “it” color: ochre pigment made from clay was one of the first colors used in cave art. The ancient Egyptians used yellow extensively in tomb paintings; women were always depicted with gold or yellow faces. It’s said that the Egyptians believed yellow topaz paid homage to the sun god, Ra, making it a popular amulet stone that was thought to protect the faithful from harm. That may be why the birthstones for those born in the month of November are yellow gemstones: topaz and citrine.

Today, though, yellow has fallen out of fashion. It is almost no one’s favorite color (only 5% of the population favors it), and it’s high on the list of least favorite colors around the world. One commentator noted that it’s a color we seem to love symbolically, but don’t want to live with. That might be because it doesn’t tend to make us look good: yellow apparel is hard to wear for most people over the age of 5 – if you don’t get it exactly right, you’ll look sallow (it’s a great pop color, though, playing well with blue, violet, grey and white).

There have been sporadic efforts to revive yellow’s status in the luxury pantheon: in 2009, the Pantone Color of the Year was “Mimosa.” Sadly, this honor didn’t seem to achieve much in the long-term advancement of the cause. But perhaps this was an idea that was simply ahead of its time. At first glance, yellow may seem Cheerful and a bit dopey (like Winnie-the-Pooh), and quite poorly suited for elite status. Look closer, though, and there’s more gravitas inherent in yellow than you might realize.

Consider:

Prelude versus warning. Yellow can be a hopeful harbinger: the first crocus of spring is often yellow, and forsythia is one of the earliest bloomers each year. A yellow traffic light signals that change is coming, and you need to prepare. In NASCAR racing, a yellow flag signals caution and the need to slow down. A canary in a coalmine might become a portent of good news – or not. On the plus side? Yellow is usually just a heads-up, not terminal: the yellow penalty card in soccer means a warning, but not expulsion. Yellow might be the forerunner of something good – or it might mean that you need to be on your guard – either way, it means “pay attention.”

Affordable versus expensive. Yellow foods tend to be inexpensive, homespun and plentiful: popcorn, potato chips, cheese, corn on the cob, lemons, bananas, melons, potatoes, bell peppers, pineapple, squash, golden apples and butter. But some yellow items are quite refined and expensive (or are at least perceived to be): Saffron. Yellowfin tuna. Lamborghinis. Imperial topaz. Yellow sapphires. Yellow diamonds. Blondes.

Peripheral versus central. Yellow mustard is a condiment, and a sidekick to the star menu item. Ditto hollandaise and aioli. But a yolk is directly in the center of an egg. In ancient China, yellow was symbolic of the Emperor and The Middle Kingdom (which was the center of the universe) – therefore, only members of the Imperial household could wear it. In the Tour de France, the yellow jersey is worn by the leader, who is the center of attention. The Yellow Brick Road in “The Wizard of Oz” is the central artery leading to the seat of power.

Loyalty and devotion versus betrayal. Yellow Labradors are sweet and trustworthy. The iconic song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is about a man’s adoration of his girlfriend. The yellow robes of a Buddhist monk represent devotion. In the late ‘70s, Americans tied yellow ribbons around trees to represent their steadfast belief that the hostages being held in Iran would safely return home (thank you, Tony Orlando, for that immortal pop song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” in which a man asks his lost love to signal whether or not he’s welcome back in her life after being released from prison.) There is a long tradition in America of yellow ribbons being worn as a sign of commitment to someone serving in the military. Yellow means welcome; forgiveness; and coming home. It can mean forbearance (Old Yeller was a dog who just never gave up). Yellow-dog Democrats are intensely loyal to their party (they’d vote for a yellow dog before voting for a Republican). But the opposite is also true: a “yellow belly” is a coward (as is a “chicken,” which is also yellow). And yellow journalism traffics in falsities and deceit.

Happiness and light versus darkness and misery. The color of breakfast is surely yellow, a simple happy meal of buttered toast and scrambled eggs or fluffy pancakes. The assigned persona of the cartoon yellow M&M is friendly and upbeat. Yellow can mean affection, admiration and even love: in Coldplay’s 2000 single “Yellow” Chris Martin warbles “I wrote a song for you, and all the things you do and it was all yellow.” But yellow can be much darker: think jaundice, malaria, and yellow fever. Yellow jackets and bees. Yellow pigments originate in toxic metals: cadmium, lead, and chrome. In the first century A.D., yellow somehow became associated with Judas Iscariot, and then with non-Christian outsiders. During the Spanish Inquisition, heretics were made to wear yellow capes. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people were forced to wear yellow Stars of David. The “Yellow Peril” was the phrase coined in the late 19th century to describe the West’s xenophobic fear of Asian people.

In fiction, yellow can signify darkness and despair: in the novel “Catcher in the Rye,” the protagonist ruminates “It’s no fun to be yellow . . . What you should be is not yellow at all.” “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers is about soldiers in the Iraq War; “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt is about a terrorist attack; and “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is about Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s and the violence that followed.

Fresh versus past its prime. Yellow can be the color of morning, fresh flowers, and youth. But “yellowed” means soiled or aged (and not in a good way).

Mental clarity versus madness. In Islam, yellow signifies wisdom. In medieval Europe, it symbolized reason. However, in Russia, asylums for the mentally ill were painted yellow and are still colloquially called yellow houses (or buildings). “Going bananas” means going crazy. The book “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman Perkins has been tied to mental illness. Hallucinogenic drugs like LSD can cause painters to use more yellow. It seems to be the favorite color of those who display extreme mental traits: Einstein and Jeffrey Dahmer reportedly both loved yellow. During the Middle Ages, wearing yellow topaz was thought to strengthen the mind and prevent mental disorders.

Soothing versus agitating. The 1967 song “Mellow Yellow” caused a generation of Americans to think of yellow as easy-going. But urban legend has it that babies cry more and couples argue more in yellow rooms (this appears to be untrue). “I Am Curious (Yellow)” is a 1967 Swedish New Wave film that proved to be quite agitating for some – it was banned for a time in the US because of accusations that it was pornographic.

Pragmatism versus whimsy. Post-it notes, yellow highlighters, rubber dishwashing gloves, tape measures, incandescent lightbulbs, the Yellow Pages and #2 pencils are all highly functional and practical yellow items. But yellow objects and characters can also be completely impractical, or designed purely for fun. Two words: Sponge Bob! Also Big Bird, the minions in Despicable Me, Lego pieces, rubber duckies, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, emojis and 1970s smiley faces.

So which brands have embraced yellow? Because it can read as cheap and cheerful, the most readily-identifiable global brands using yellow are McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, IKEA, and Best Buy. Many casual restaurants and burger joints use it, too. Yellow can signify “rugged,” perhaps explaining why Timberland employs it. The reference to “speed” is what seems to have drawn Sprint and Nikon to yellow in their brand logos.

What about luxury brands? There are more than you might think: Lufthansa, FENDI, Veuve Clicquot-Poinsardin, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maybach, Porsche, Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines, L’Occitane and Toblerone all prominently use yellow, sometimes in combination with black. So do Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Warner Brothers, Batman, the Green Bay Packers, and the Golden State Warriors. You see? Yellow may be making a comeback.

BTW, if any of this has inspired you to give yellow a whirl, Valentino and Dolce are both showing bright yellow lace dresses in-store right now. You would definitely be eye-catching in any one of them.

Having reflected on the nature of yellow, we kind of love it now. In fact, we think that if yellow were a person, we’d want to hang with them. Like the ideal BFF, yellow is sunny, loyal, and alert to what’s happening. It can cause you to slow down – either to smell a flower, or to pet a dog, or to take a curve with a bit less speed so that you don’t wipe out. Yellow is in no hurry, and we think it exemplifies living in that moment between what was and what will be: the glorious present.

Many artists, including Georges Seurat, have employed yellow extensively in their work. Of them all, Vincent van Gogh probably admired and used it the most. He lived for a time in a yellow house in Arles; although he was plagued by depression, his work is suffused with warm yellow light. Xanthopsia is a malady that results in an over-riding yellow bias in vision, and some speculate that Van Gogh suffered from this disorder. Whatever the reason, he utilized yellow to great effect: if you look at a series of his paintings, you will begin to see the world as kinder, softer, more forgiving, and gentler. His portraits, landscapes and still-lives show people, flowers, buildings and their interiors weathered down into something lovely and enduring. The yellow whorls of “Starry Night” bring hope in the darkness. Yellow may not have been what Van Gogh saw. It may have been what he wanted us to see. He famously said that “there is no blue without yellow and without orange,” and perhaps by that he meant that we need both darkness and light to live a full life. He also said that yellow was a color capable of charming God.

Surely Van Gogh spent as much time thinking about the nature and meaning of yellow as anyone in history, so the last word on the subject should go to someone who observed the artist closely throughout his life. His best friend Gauguin said of Van Gogh: “Oh yes, he loved yellow . . . Those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul, that abhorred the fog, that needed the warmth.”

Actually, we’ve been wrong about this all along. Yellow is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.