A Colored Past (3): Sunlight and Suspicion

Yellow has been a common pigment since pre-history, appearing in early cave art via yellow ochre made from clay. The early drawings at Lascaux, which date back over 17,000 years, include a horse colored with this ochre. Murals from Roman and Egyptian antiquity, too, make prominent use of yellow, particularly to represent the skin of humans and gods. In the case of the latter, yellow was associated with gold and given attributions of eternity, imperishability and utmost value.
Christendom, however, added darker shades to the symbolic cache of yellow. By the Middle Ages, the tint became the recognized color of Judas Iscariot, the man who according to legend betrayed Jesus to the Roman officials. The color was quickly linked with outsider status, mistrust, jealousy and deception. The textile history of the color, then, is not one of nobility but rather scorn. Starting in the Renaissance, Jewish and other non-Christian people were marked with the color in order to separate them — an echo of how poisonous animals and plants are pigmented yellow in nature as a warning. During the Spanish inquisition, those put on trial were forced to appear wearing a yellow cape.
Beyond the reach of Christianity, however, yellow preserved many of its more positive associations. Radiant and reminiscent of sunlight, the color was particularly auspicious in Imperial China and used to distinguish the ruling class as descendants of the gods of heaven. Sumptuary laws designated that the color could only be worn by those who were part of the royal household; yellow carpets greeted distinguished guests to the Emperor. Today, the color remains associated in the Orient with the divine and the light of spiritual and intellectual knowledge, coloring the robes of many Hindu and Buddhist adherents alike.
Yellow is a strange story in the history of textiles; today, it seems to have retained an ambivalent character. Public opinion polls show that it is seldom named a favorite color, and a decent percentage of people find it altogether displeasing. In nature, it remains as always an indicator of caution — a patterning humanity has mimicked to elicit care around, for example, taxis and school buses. Yellow is, however, simultaneously associated with optimism, and perhaps owing to its minor status, frivolity; in fashion and art, the color appears with notable frequency in women’s ball gowns. It is a color that has managed to slip through history in some ways, still a choice for those seeking a sense of levity, gaiety and freedom – particularly if one is unafraid of raising some eyebrows and suspicions.
Illust.: Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1844