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The Complex History of Yellow, a “Mediocre” Color

Considering the evidence of yellow’s constant fluctuation in and out of favor, it is curious to see author Michel Pastoureau wonder if it could be “the color of the future.”

Michel Pastoureau, Yellow: The History of a Color (image courtesy of Princeton University Press)

My copy of the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols describes yellow as “the hottest, the most expansive and the most burning of all colors in its intensity, violence and almost strident shrillness … broad and dazzling as a flow of molten metal, being hard to put out and always overflowing the limits within which one tries to confine it.” This definition suggests an ambivalence toward the color, describing both yellow’s resplendence and abrasiveness. So too have general attitudes toward it oscillated between restrained admiration and deep unpopularity. Yellow: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau charts this “long, slow history” of yellow in Europe.

Over three broad chapters that take us from the ochres of prehistory to the neon of the gilet jaunes (yellow vest protesters) in France, we are reminded that color is mostly a cultural construction. We “make” colors when we group similar tones under one name and imbue those tones with symbolic meanings stemming from and exhibited in scientific, artistic, and other cultural sources. A professor of medieval history and symbology expert, Pastoureau is an adept and lucid guide to yellow’s mutable connotations.

Scheiblersches Wappenbuch, circa 1450-1455. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. Icon. 312 c.

In classical antiquity, yellow clothing was usually reserved for women. As a result, a man in yellow was deemed an effeminate reprobate with no regard for the social order. Cicero weaponized this convention in Pro Milone (52 BCE), his speech defending Titus Annius Milo who was prosecuted for the murder of the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher, referencing when the latter disguised himself as a woman by wearing yellow in the hopes of seducing Caesar’s wife, Pompeia.

For centuries yellow would be associated with deceit, characterized as a “false duplicitous color that cannot be trusted.” From the late Middle Ages until the early modern period, the houses of prominent figures found guilty of treason were painted yellow. When the 15th-century theologian Jan Hus was sentenced to death for heresy, he was led to the stake in yellow robes. Yellow distinguished people marginalized by wider society, whether they were the prostitutes to whom yellow ID cards were issued, the patients in Central Europe’s sanitariums (the outer walls of which were painted yellow), or Jews forced to wear yellow stars in the anti-Semitic sphere of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Blondness, however, is a kind of yellow that has maintained prestige from antiquity through the present day. Many Greek and Roman gods were blond. Roman women lightened their hair or wore blond wigs. In the Age of Chivalry, blond hair signified nobility, honor, beauty, and goodness. Arthurian heroines were often blond, with the notable exception of Guinevere, a brunette who was appropriately “capable of adultery and treachery.”

Despite a temporary boost during the Enlightenment thanks to a “strong wave of Sinophilia,” in which China was associated with yellow, the color’s unpopularity accelerated with Victorian chromophobia. Its association with vulgarity provided bold transgressors with opportunities to make a statement, as the Bodley Head publishing house did, taking inspiration from the illicit yellow-covered French novels for its own infamous periodical The Yellow Book (1894–97)an example peculiarly absent from this book.

The 20th century saw yet another revival of yellow, in which sport played a major part. The Tour de France’s yellow jersey, first introduced in 1919 to advertise the race’s sponsor, L’Auto, is now a “mythic object” that spawned the phrase “maillots jaunes”: to lead the pack. Similarly, the yellow card, first used in soccer at the 1970 Mexico v USSR World Cup match, is also now enshrined as a metaphor.

Tiger attacking a calf, colored marbles (opus sectile) from the basicilia of Junius Bassus, first half of the 4th century. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Conservators Palace. Bridgeman Images

Yellow’s physical visibility, which makes it so useful in signaling danger, hasn’t translated into cultural favor. Considering the evidence of yellow’s constant fluctuation in and out of favor, it is curious to see Pastoureau wonder if it could be “the color of the future” (see the short-lived trend  of Gen Z yellow). But his observation that “whether ancient or contemporary, language is not kind to this color, often beautiful at first, but so quick to soil or fade” anthropomorphizes yellow in a way that makes you root for it to find place alongside the imperious red and ubiquitous blue.

Yellow: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (2019) is published by Princeton University Press and is available from Amazon or your local independent bookstore.

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