The color yellow is associated with sunny spring flowers, summer in full mature and its fruits and, of course, autumnal gold. Color symbolism binds it to gold, brightness, enlightenment, and the Sun. As many spring flowers are yellow, it is also associated with new life. In many ancient cultures yellow symbolizes cowardice. There are also cultures where yellow represents envy. A yellow flag was once used to symbolize disease and quarantine. [2.]
Brightness of yellow was also associated with royal status. For example, in China and Southeast Asia yellow symbolizes high status and royalty. It was adopted as the imperial color in China in the 6th century. [2.] Only an emperor could wear yellow clothes - a symbol that he was equal to the Sun - and some monks. [2.] Therefore, this color is quite controversial as it might represent both negative and positive aspects. But, as always, it has been dependent on the historical era and cultural area.
And now let's look at what has been the role of yellow in the Western fashion costume!
Ancient Blondes, Yellow Gold & Saffron
The oldest yellow pigment is yellow ochre, which was among the first pigments used by humans. [10.] Already in Ancient Egypt, the yellow color was associated with gold, which was considered to be imperishable, eternal and indestructible. Ancient Egyptians believed that bones and skin of their gods are made of gold. Golden yellow frequently appears in the regalia and decorations of the pharaohs, as well as in their royal costumes.
The yellow sun was one of humanity’s most important symbols and was worshiped as God in many ancient cultures. According to Greek mythology, the sun-god Helios wore a yellow clothes and rode in a golden chariot drawn by four fiery horses across the heavenly firmament. The radiant yellow light of the sun personified his divine wisdom. [10.] Maybe that's why in Ancient Greece and Rome, the gods were often depicted with yellow, or blonde or golden hair. And again it affected fashion in ancient times, because yellow was associated with the sun gods Helios and Apollo. Therefore, it was fashionable in Ancient Greece to dye hair yellow, or to spend time in the sun to bleach it. The tradition was continued, but with a different meaning. In Ancient Rome, prostitutes were required to bleach their hair, to be easily identified....Yellow also became a fashionable hair color for aristocratic women, influenced by the exotic blonde hair of many of the newly conquered slaves from Gaul, Britain, and Germany. However, in medieval Europe and later, the word yellow often had negative connotations and was associated with betrayal. That is why yellow hair then was more poetically called 'blond,' 'light', 'fair,' or most often "golden". [9.]
Saffron - The Yellow Gold
During the ancient times yellow ochre was not the only pigment to get bright yellow clothing. There was also very precious saffron and its ancient legends... Originally saffron is known as a spice that is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus or "saffron crocus". In ancient times saffron's stigmas were collected and used as seasoning and coloring agent in food. People have been using it also for other purposes, and saffron became one of the most expensive dyestuff for fabric coloring, and was used in cosmetics and perfumery. Crocus sativus contains a carotenoid pigment, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue. Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC. During Assyrian Empire under Ashurbanipal, saffron has been traded and used as a pigment and for food seasoning. [5.]
Since the ancient times saffron has been very expensive. Each flower produces only three threads (stigmas) of saffron, and it blooms for only one week each year. The saffron must be harvested only by hand in the mid-morning, when the flowers are still closed in order to protect the delicate stigmas inside. It takes about 1,000 flowers to produce just one ounce of saffron. [23.]
Despite its high cost, saffron has been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India. Clothing dyed with saffron was traditionally reserved for the noble classes. For example, Buddhist and Hindu monks wore saffron clothes as a sign of a status.
Saffron played a significant role in the Greco-Roman world and also during the pre-classical period since the 8th century BC. The first known image of saffron however stems from the Bronze Age. A saffron harvest is shown in the Knossos palace frescoes of Minoan Crete where saffron was used as a medicine.
Saffron was also widely used in perfumes and ointments. Legendary Egyptian queen Cleopatra of the late Ptolemaic period used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths, as she prized its coloring and cosmetic properties. [5.]
In Greco-Roman world saffron was widely traded across the Mediterranean region by the Phoenicians. Their customers ranged from the Egyptian perfumers to townspeople in Rhodes, who wore pouches of saffron in order to mask the presence of malodorous fellow citizens during outings to the theater. For the Greeks, saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans and retainers known as the heteraerae.
In antiquity, during Greco-Roman times saffron was prized as a perfume or deodorizer and it was scattered in public spaces, such as - royal apartments, courts, and amphitheaters. When Roman emperor Nero entered Rome they spread saffron along the streets. Wealthy Romans took daily saffron baths and used it as mascara, stirred saffron threads into the wine etc. Roman colonists took saffron with them when they settled in southern Roman Gaul (Gallia) , where it was extensively cultivated until the AD 271 barbarian invasion of Italy. Sources say that saffron returned to France with 8th-century Moors or with Avignon Papacy during the 14th century. [3. ]
However, in ancient Europe, saffron or mustard yellow also played an important role
Traditionally, the ancient Irish wore the léine, a linen tunic with voluminous sleeves and a hemline reaching the knees or higher. Scottish Highlanders also wore the léine under their belted plaid - the garment that eventually became the modern kilt. [24.]
The Irish léine was dyed "saffron", a shade often described as mustard-yellow. Whether saffron from the crocus flower was actually used or this was simply the term for the colour is another bone of contention. [24.] The léine was eventually discarded as everyday clothing, partly due to restrictive English laws imposed upon the Irish populace and also for economic reasons. [24. ]
The 14th-century Black Death caused demand for saffron-based medicines. Europe imported large quantities of saffron via Venetian and Genovese ships from southern and Mediterranean lands such as Rhodes. The theft of one such shipment by noblemen sparked the fourteen-week-long Saffron War. [3.] The conflict and resulting fear of rampant saffron piracy spurred corm cultivation in Basel. [3.] The saffron then spread to Nuremberg. Meanwhile, cultivation continued in southern France, Italy, and Spain. [3.]
Medieval & Renaissance Yellow & Gold Era
In the 16th century, the only color mentioned is saffron or yellow. Note, although, that many sources say simply that the shirts were “often” or “generally” dyed with saffron, and many do not mention color at all. This does leave open the possibility of other colors, but it cannot be doubted that saffron was the overwhelming favorite.
In regards to the saffron, it was apparently so much in use that local supplies were not enough and it was also imported from abroad. [19.]
At that time, the yellow color also gained its own connotation, which was not always associated with optimism and positive aspects of life. Yellow became firmly established as the color of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ. From this connection, yellow also took on associations with envy, jealousy and duplicity. So the yellow clothes got their negative hue. The tradition started during the Renaissance era when non-Christian outsiders, such as Jews, were marked with yellow clothes. In 16th century Spain, those accused of heresy and who refused to renounce their views were compelled to come before the Inquisition dressed in a yellow cape. [1. ]
The yellow has been historically associated with moneylenders and finance. The symbol of three golden orbs is found in the coat of arms of the House of Medici, a famous 15th-century Italian dynasty of bankers and lenders. [9.]
However, during the period from the 15th to the 17th century, the costumes of yellow were not very common. But the yellow appeared in the gold brocade, which was particularly rich in those times.
From The Yellow Of Nankeen To "Yellow Journalism"
During the 18th and 19th centuries new synthetic pigments and dyes were discovered. In the 18th century, during the age of the Rococo fashions, the popularity of yellow-colored clothing was closely linked to China's influence in many areas of life and culture. Yellow has strong historical and cultural associations in China, where it is the color of happiness, glory, and wisdom. In China, there are five directions of the compass; north, south, east, west, and the middle, each with a symbolic color. Yellow signifies the middle. China is called the Middle Kingdom; the palace of the Emperor was considered to be in the exact center of the world. [ 1.]
It all had its own adjacent factors. Under the influence of French court, yellow costumes were also a manifestation of the lifestyle of their time, because yellow is the color most associated with optimism and earthly pleasures. Yellow is a color that attracts an attention, and therefore it was used for amusement.
The influence of China affected not only the use of silk fabrics, but also the appearance of a relatively modest cotton Nankeen.
Nankeen, also called Nankeen cloth, is a kind of pale yellow cloth that was originally made at Nanjing, China. It was produced from a yellow variety of cotton, but subsequently manufactured from ordinary cotton that is then dyed.
Nankeen fabrics in Europe appeared already at the end of the 18th century and gained widespread prevalence at the beginning of the 19th century. Nankeen trousers and breeches for men were a popular garment because of the durability of the cloth.
During the Victorian era in the 19th-century, yellow was considered to be the color most similar to light. Its shades mostly varied from the butter hues to lemon yellow, and mustard or saffron yellow. It was suitable for morning dresses, day dresses, evening gowns, and seaside wear. Fashion magazines and color experts of the day recommended restricting clear, bright yellows to spring and summer. However, shades of yellow could be seen in fashionable dress throughout the year, often in the form of gloves, a decorative fan, a frilly parasol, or an impressive hat. [4.]
At the very end of the 19th century, the yellow tones became very modern. this can be partly attributed to the aesthetics of spring and summer flower blossoms of the Art Nouveau era, but it also came with a sensational taste... Yellow was also a favorite color for many artists of that time. Georges Seurat and Vincent Van Gogh were a particular admirers of the color yellow, the color of sunshine among many others.
And then came a sensation. In 1895, a new popular art form began to appear in New York newspapers. It was the color comic strip. It took advantage of a new color printing process, which used color separation and three contrasting colors of ink - magenta, cyan, and yellow...And black was also used to create all the colors on the page.
One of the first characters in the new comic strips was a humorous boy of the New York streets named Mickey Dugen. [9.] The character was also known as the Yellow kid because of the yellow nightshirt he wore. He gave his name (and color) to the whole genre of popular, sensational journalism, which became known as "yellow journalism". [9.] And we know it to this day.
References & Further Reading:
1.Heller E. Psychologie de la couleur: Effets et symboliques. - Editions Pyramyd, 2009.
2. Signs & Symbols. An Illustrated Guide To Their Origins And Meanings. /Project Editor: Kathryn Wilkinson. - London, New York, Munich, Melbourne, Delhi: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2008.
3.Willard P. Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice. - Boston, Beacon Press, 2002.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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