Historical Sew Fortnightly

The HSF ’14: Challenge #17: Yellow (happy happy yellow!)

Now, it’s a pretty well known fact that yellow isn’t the most popular colour.  It’s few peoples favourite colour, and many people actually dislike it.

And it’s an equally well known fact, at least among readers of this blog, that I love yellow.

Pictured: love

I’m particularly smitten with the rich, saturated shades of 17th century yellow, and the deep, acidic tones of 18th century yellow, but really, I adore yellow in all its forms.

Queen Henrietta Maria, 1632, Anthony van Dyke

Queen Henrietta Maria, 1632, Anthony van Dyke

German bodice, 1660s

German bodice, 1660s

Robe a la francaise, 1750s, KCI?

Robe a la francaise, 1750s, Royal Ontario Museum

So obviously, I’m extremely excited about the HSF Challenge #17: Yellow, due Mon 1 Sept.

I know some of you aren’t that excited about it, and some people have even had a bit of a complain about it, and that makes me quite sad.

Because, as you know, I think the HSF should be a bit of a challenge: we should have to push ourselves, and try new things (even if they don’t always work out).

And, of course, I love yellow.

Shoe, Italy, 18th century

Shoe, Italy, 18th century

I’ve waxed so poetically and enthusiastically about it that I’ve even brought some of you former yellow haters to the bright side.  And if I didn’t, that’s OK, it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, because I still will!  (though I advocate liking all the colours, because colours are awesome and the world would be a boring place without them all, and every colour, no matter how much you dislike it, probably has an application where it looks amazing (I say probably because there is a particular shade of purple that I will probably never be able to look at again without cringing, and one day you’ll find out why)).

One of the reasons many people don’t like yellow is because they find it unflattering.  I think it’s worth taking a moment to stop and think about this.

Saint Lucia in Court, 1532, Lorenzo Lotto

Saint Lucia in Court, 1532, Lorenzo Lotto

First, what we consider flattering today is often not what was considered flattering historically.  I’ve heard a lot of people say that yellow ‘washes me  out’, and that’s kind-of true: yellow can make a lot of skin tones look lighter.  But up until the 1920s, lighter, paler, and less tanned was better.  Yellow is often cited as a flattering colour in 19th century fashion literature, when tanning was definitely not the thing.  So while it may not fit in with out modern beauty ideals (though pale and interesting has returned, and I love it!), from a period perspective it’s doing the right thing.

Second, how yellow flatters you depends on the fabric, and the dye.

Évrard de Conty, France, Cognac, 1496-1498. Illustrated by Robinet Testard, Paris, BNF, Departement des Manuscrits, Français 143, fol. 116

Évrard de Conty, France, Cognac, 1496-1498. Illustrated by Robinet Testard, Paris, BNF, Departement des Manuscrits, Français 143, fol. 116

We wear a lot of cotton and synthetic fabrics today, and you may not look very good in yellow in them, but try a yellow silk, and you might feel very differently.   Silk reflects  light beautifully, casting a warm, flattering glow back up on your face, so a much wider range of colours will look good on you in silk (really high quality linen also has a beautiful, flattering lustre).

Finally, prior to the invention of synthetic dyes in the 1860s, all dyes were made from plant or mineral sources, and natural dyes tend to be more dimensional and dynamic, and thus more flattering.  Some of the synthetic yellow shades are very flat and harsh, making them hard to wear.


Poiret Oriental gown, Spring 1913. Sold at the Doyle couture auction, November 1999.

Poiret Oriental gown, Spring 1913. Sold at the Doyle couture auction, November 1999.

Even if you still don’t like yellow despite my earnest efforts to convince you of its many virtues, there are all sorts of  things that you can make for the challenge without going for the allover-head-to-toe yellow ensemble.

A yellow trimmed hat, yellow bag, yellow gloves (extremely fashionable during a number of periods), yellow stockings, or even a yellow housewife (so you aren’t actually wearing it) are all ways to add a lovely spot of colour to an outfit.

Gallery of Fashion, October 1794

Gallery of Fashion, October 1794

Yellow silk stockings with embroidered blue knit clock. England, early 19th century. KCI

Yellow silk stockings with embroidered blue knit clock. England, early 19th century. KCI

And your item needn’t be completely yellow: as long as yellow as an obvious and important part of the design it counts.

So go forth and make lovely glow-y, happy, sunshine-y things! (and hopefully feel glow-y, and happy, and sunshine-y about making them, whether you are working with a colour you already love, or being brave and stretching your boundaries – which is a good thing in and of itself.)  If you need more yellow inspiration, I have whole pinterest board full of yellow deliciousness.


  1. Lynne says

    What a collection of treasures! I applaud your love of yellow. I love the colour, but I’m one of those people who feels it doesn’t love me. It makes me look muddy and ill. But that doesn’t stop me decorating my home with it! And crooning happily over it when I see the fabric.

  2. I’m not sure I will have time to jump back on the HSF train in time for this, but I have two wonderful yellow fabrics that I need to come up with something for. One is a heavenly soft wool in a very warm tone, I really need to think hard before cutting into this one since I want it to be something I can wear for more than historical costuming, the other more likely candidate is a yard of silk taffeta. For this I’m pretty sure that I want to make a garment that I found for the art challenge, but didn’t have time to complete but I’m not sure that one yard is enough.

    I’m not a fan of yellow, but I don’t hate it and in its warmer and more muted shades I can definitely think about wearing it.

    • It’s good to have things in stash! If you do manage to make time I look forward to seeing your creation! I’m not sure what your item is, but a yard of silk taffeta would easily make a pair of mitts, or a muff (or quite possibly a muff and mitts).

  3. In my modern life I don’t usually like yellow, but there are exceptions; a soft, pale, vanilla curd yellow is beautiful. And I LOVE the mustard yellow of my 14th century kirtle – in that setting. So a modern dislike of a certain colour certainly does not have to apply to period clothing. I like the challenge 🙂

    • I’m glad you like it! I think your yellow kirtle is GORGEOUS! Now I can’t decide if I want a blue kirtle or a yellow one… I guess I’ll have to see what is available when I’m ready to fabric shop.

  4. There are many historical yellow gowns that I LOVE (and you helped a bit), but can’t exactly make for lack of fabric…

    Just a curious question (that might become applicable, who knows): would, say, the straw of a straw hat count if it were yellowy?

    • wildcolours.co.ukwildcolours.co.ukPersonally, I don’t feel straw or metal count for this challenge, but I try not to police the HSF too much (and let’s just say that a properly historical straw item would irritate me much less than an elaborate yellow top-to-toe ‘it’s just a costume and isn’t at all historical’ outfit 😉 )

      If you don’t have yellow fabric in stash, do you have anything you could attempt to dye yellow with a natural dye? Perhaps a simple yellow fichu en marmotte 😀

      Here are some starter ideas for natural yellow dyes: http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/yellow_dyes.html

      • I actually have a gorgeous deep gold combination of fabrics – a velvet and a silk blend that could be used as lining – but they’re small amounts and it’s such a warm, orange-y hue that it’s definitely not for me, nor for pretty much anyone else I know… so I know I want to make something awesome with it, but I’m not sure what.

        The straw question was really just because I chanced to look at my straw hats at the moment, and my mind went “yellow!” 😀

          • Yes, I think I’ve already been thinking about that. Maybe a reticule for my sister, she’s the one more likely to wear orange-y hues.

      • Elise says

        The first thing I thought of when I saw this post was ‘there are so many creative ways to get to yellow for those who are nervous. Straw (like hats), gold-binding (like the Polly Oliver dress), yellow embroidery.

  5. I adore yellow after discovering that I really look good in it last year! I’m not sure what I’ll make for this challenge but I do have a yellow UFO waiting in the wings as a back up plan.

  6. Great article! I love yellow, too. I had a phase when I wore nothing but yellow. It’s actually not a really good color for me (at least the sunflower yellow that I love) but I still have several rooms painted in yellow and I like to use it for accents in my clothes.

  7. Mrianne Mageau-van Ooijen says

    The Robe a la francaise belogns to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) in Toronto Canada. I’ve seen it on exhibit.

  8. Grace Darling says

    I’m coveting the golden pear yellow of Max Kurzweil’s
    “Lady in a Yellow Dress” 1899

  9. Oh my, about people fearing that yellow washes them out, it’s a matter of understanding color. We either have blue (cool) undertones in our skin or yellow (warm). I’m a warm. When I was younger I looked best in saturated warm colors, but now (and I’m not that old, lol) I look better in more pastel warm colors. I can even wear blue…if it’s in an undertone of yellow, like teal or turquoise. Sapphire blue which I love, tends to wash me out. Likewise with yellow. There is likely a yellow for everyone. For those who look best in cool colors it’s a matter of finding the yellow with blue undertones, like the Periot Oriental gown. That yellow isn’t my best yellow to wear, however that warm yellow in the 1700’s corset is a good color for me.
    As soon as you assigned yellow, I knew what I was doing! =)

  10. Cat Thuillier says

    “Sunshine Daisies Butter Mellow Turn this stupid fat rat yellow!”

    Well I’ll not turn my champagne rat yellow, but there are some beautiful Safavid gowns featuring yellow combinations that I’m dying to try. This may be just the excuse I’ve needed to get started! Thanks for the dye ideas, too (^∇^)

  11. Sheree says

    I think you have just converted me to yellow!

  12. I used to not be a fan of yellow, but I’ve slowly come to not just like it but love it, especially that bright acid yellow of the 18th Century. Really looking forward to this one!

  13. I like yellow. I think it’s a warm, happy, sunny colour. But I can understand why people dislike cheap synthetic fabrics in yellow – all colours look better when they have some depth and subtlety, but you really notice it with yellow.

    I’m looking forward to this challenge.

  14. I love yellow. Used to wear quite a bit of it when younger, but not so much nowadays, I think it kind of disagreed with me at some point and now I tend not to think “oh, I will wear yellow.”

    When I am an old fellow I shall wear yellow….?

    • Actually, I bought a cheap neon dayglo yellow umbrella yesterday in a rush when the heavens opened during London Pride yesterday. Regretting that impulse purchase now… but not as much as if it’d been dayglo lime or orange!

      • Elise says

        You were at London Pride? How wonderful! I helped set up the one here. (high-five!) I imagine that your day-glo yellow umbrella fit right in.

  15. I love yellow! Despite my best efforts, however, it truly does not like me. Not that it washes me out–I’d be pleased with that! No, nearly every tone aside from nearly-brown gold or palest vanilla (and do those really count as yellow?) just looks blah next to my skin. But I’ve learned–wear it away from your face and you can pull just about anything off (I’ve a yellow silk petticoat that I just love, and I wear more flattering-to-me blue or red or pink near my face).

    • Kate says

      I’m the same – I’ve a bit of a yellow tone to my skin anyway, so yellow next to my face makes me look sallow and jaundiced, no matter the shade. Even off-whites and ivories make me look just a bit sickly. But I have a yellow skirt that is one of my most favourite me-mades, it makes me happy every time I pull it out of the wardrobe. I’ve been slowly working more yellow into my wardrobe, since realising that as long as it’s not near my face, it is my friend!

  16. Elise says

    I keep coming back to this post to read more reactions to yellow.

  17. Catherine says

    My objection to yellow is that it makes my blonde hair look blah and dull . . .

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