The Real Reason Yellow—Not Pink—Is the Colour of Gen Z

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Getty Images

"Millennials," in case you've been able to escape the term, refers to people born in the early '80s all the way up through the early '00s. We're often defined by three key things: We can't buy our own homes, we exclusively eat avocado on toast (*rolls eyes*), and we have a love affair with pink. Millennial Pink, to be exact.

For the past few years, no one has been able to escape this hue, which in reality ranges from the bubblegum to the more cerise end of the scale. Whether it's on our clothes, in our bedrooms or even in our drinks, the colour has boomed. But like every generation before us, we're about to be replaced by another: Generation Z. And they’ve got their own colour too: yellow.

But why yellow? And why does a generation have to be assigned a colour? I spoke to Carolyn Mair, a professor of psychology for fashion, on the matter of how we perceive colour, took a look at intel from Pantone, and delved into the hard data from retail analysts at Edited to see how consumers are lapping up the hue to understand more about the phenomenon.

HOW DO WE PICK COLOURS FOR GENERATIONS?

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Clockwise from left: Getty Images; @boy_smells@glossier@sketchlondon

Interestingly, both of the experts I spoke to assured me that colours don't just come around by accident. There's always a reason. "You cannot separate society and colour," says Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Colour Institute. "Trends in colour reflect the times. Looking back over history, colour silently conveys what was taking place at that moment."

Mair agrees, explaining that the colour we choose to represent a generation is dependent on our socio-cultural references: "We all have in-built associations with colour that are well established," she tells me.  So what does that mean exactly? Essentially it has a lot to do with what's going on around us.

"Just like with any other colour trend for other generations, there's a feeling taking place that millennials picked up on. Wearing this colour almost then becomes a badge of who you are and where you fit," says Pressman. On a smaller scale, if we just take the past year, for example, we've seen an emergence of pastels on the runways.

One theory put forward by The New York Times is that thanks to huge world events taking place (such as the U.S. president hinting at nuclear war), hurricanes wreaking enormous damage in the Caribbean, and terrorist attacks all over the world, "we no longer have the luxury of not knowing the bad news" due to social media. So we use colour as a means of escapism. It's a way to "disguise the taste of poison … with a sugar coating."

WHY PINK? WHY YELLOW?

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Clockwise from left: Getty Images; Pernille Teisbaek; Getty Images; Getty Images

This thinking can be easily extended to reasons why Generation Z has chosen yellow and why pink is the colour for millennials.

According to Mair, "Pink got chosen for plenty of different reasons. But one interesting theory is that pink represents spring whereas yellow is what people associate with summer. Another is that it's everything to do with a generation's socio-economic status. The early '00s was a prosperous and positive time, so the colour yellow, which we associated with being hopeful and positive, is a reflection of that time they were born into."

However, there are other possible indicators as to why yellow is such a dominant colour for this generation. Unlike millennials, Generation Z is regarded as being more politically active (you need only see the 17-year-olds organising the March for Our Lives demonstration to understand that) than the previous generation, and yellow is a colour of positivity and change.

As Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute explains, "Super-saturated shades of the cheery colour are having a moment with dozens of stars shining in the daffodil, lemon and even neon-yellow looks. The uptick is partly driven by the current cultural climate. It's the colour of sunshine, which with it brings a sense of joy and hopefulness. Plus, it is guaranteed to turn heads."

But it's not just politics that has an impact. Fashion has also been a real driver behind Generation Z's obsession with yellow. From Emma Stone in La La Land frock to Beyoncé's Roberto Cavalli dress in the Hold Up video, there are plenty of other points of influence. 

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Left: Beyoncé "Hold Up" video; Right: Emma Stone in La La Land

So if we’ve managed to uncover exactly what it is about Generation Z and why yellow is their colour, how, then, did pink get chosen for millennials? Pressman offers up this explanation.

"In the case of the pinks, one of the biggest things we were seeing is how this colour family became associated with the gender blur. No longer a feminine shade, the pinks moved into becoming a lifestyle shade. The millennials with their lack of concern over labels helped to drive this trend."

BUT WHAT ABOUT CONSUMERS? 

As with pink before it, yellow is now dominating the catwalks. But it's also seen on the high street. According to the retail analysts at Edited, the demand for yellow clothing and accessories increased dramatically in September last year, when usually they wouldn't see such a rise as yellow isn't usually considered an autumn colour. However, 2017 bucked the usual trend, and into 2018 there has been an increased demand for various yellow pieces. While accessories remain the more popular option, dresses and trousers are still selling. 

WHAT'S NEXT? 

Of course, the obvious question is what’s next? What comes after Generation Z? Pressman says that only time will tell. "With so many social issues at the moment, from the importance of nature and the world of natural organics to our desire to stand tall and be heard, there are a number of colours and colour families that come to mind. However, it also takes a special something to become emblematic of a generation."