Late last year, I found myself in a meeting with three other women, and we were all dressed identically. Blue jeans of various washes, clumpy, Chelsea-style black boots with pull-on tabs, parkas (shed over the backs of our chairs), and mustard yellow sweaters. We noticed it and laughed. “This is the only kind of yellow I wear,” said a woman with wispy blonde hair. “It’s the only one that looks good on me.”
Is this brownish, orangey yellow universally flattering? Considering how many people I see wearing it, it must be. (Or perhaps we’ve decided, en masse, that what’s “flattering” no longer matters.) The mustard craze of the late 2010s appears to have started on runways and in boutiques, but it quickly made its way into home goods and other consumer products. You can buy mustard yellow midcentury modern couches from hip start-ups and mustard yellow lamps from high-end designers. There are condiment-colored cashmeres hanging off bespoke hangers in brick-and-mortar shops, and condiment-colored acrylic blends for sale online at Target. It’s become surprisingly ubiquitous—especially for a color that leans so far toward brown. This isn’t a primary, playful, dandelion-bright yellow. It isn’t the color of daffodils or spring or blooms. It’s too murky for that. This is the color of late-summer allergies, well-stocked pantries, and hashtag-adulting. It’s the color of pest-deterring marigolds and over-tall crops. It’s a harvest color, one that normally shows up later in the year, when the grasses have begun to dry and wild turkeys have begun to roam into the road. But this year, instead of waiting for its season to return, mustard hung around. It stuck around through winter and now, when pastels and florals typically get their turn, that mustard stain remains.
It’s getting bigger, too. I first became aware of yellow trending thanks to the powerful trend recognition skills of fashion editor Harling Ross at Man Repeller. Back in 2017 she was calling for all-yellow outfits, and proclaiming Gen Z yellow the heir to Millennial pink. Two years later, both colors remain trendy, with mustard gaining a slight edge. In early April 2019, writer Emily Gould made note of the mustard-washing on Twitter. “What are we calling this color that’s inescapable right now?” she asked. “Mustard? Goldenrod? Gen Z yellow?” The suggestions came rolling in: fair-trade turmeric, mikado, aura yellow, “drybar” yellow, and golden hour, each one trying to outdo the other with tongue-in-cheek, self-aware hipness. The conversation had the tone of a McSweeney’s piece. Funny, but only if you already get it.
Then, just a few weeks later, the newest spokesperson for cool millennials and eager overachievers, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, launched his website, which was greeted by fans with the kind of excitement usually reserved for a surprise Beyoncé drop. Buttigieg’s official announcement of his candidacy was, frankly, less of a surprise than his design decisions. For this, the biggest branding opportunity of his life, Buttigieg brought in Brooklyn studio Hyperakt. They built an online “design toolkit” where you can customize your Buttigieg gear. You can choose from a limited collection of fonts and colors. The lettering is retro, a throwback to early Americana, and the hues could probably be described as “classic—with a twist.” Or, as Esther Wang put it, “bland, muddled, basic … a perfect encapsulation of his campaign as well as his ideology.” Nestled in this minimally inspired palette, between “river blue” and “calm blue,” is a golden hue. Millennial mustard, critics dubbed it on Twitter. But Mayor Pete, ever the politician and always the advocate for Real America, instead calls it, “heartland yellow.”
Clearly, this is a color of many names, and all of them are serviceable. These days, you can name a color whatever you like, by sheer force of internet clout. But it’s worth remembering that before there was heartland yellow or fair-trade turmeric or even mustard itself, there was ochre. Before we had massive corporations selling the same ephemeral goods all around the world, we had ochre.
Ochre was one of the earliest pigments used by humans, and it came ready-made from the bowels of the earth. While ochre usually refers to a matte gold color, the pigment can vary in hue from light yellow to brick red to chocolate brown (though the name comes from the ancient Greek word for pale yellow, it is now commonly understood as meaning “yellowish-brown”). The pigment is made from a naturally occurring mixture of clay, sand, and iron hydroxide. Sometimes, early humans would take this mineral blend and shape it into old school crayons. (Archeologists believe that the earliest drawing known to history was a crosshatch pattern made with a bit of red ochre, created some 73,000 years ago in a South African cave.) Sometimes, they would rub it on their skin, altering the lines and planes of their faces, transforming their bodies into strange, new creations. Sometimes, they would grind it into powder and add a binding agent to create paint. Prehistoric people in Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Americas all used ochre to decorate rocks and caves and probably other things that have decayed, rotted, and been lost to history. They painted silhouettes of bison and deer, silhouettes of their own hands, and abstract patterns known as “finger flutings.” Although these early artists clearly had skill—their beastly portraits show a close attention to anatomy and a sense of movement—they usually depicted humans as little stick figures. Perhaps there was a religious taboo against painting images of people, or perhaps they just didn’t want to paint themselves. Either they thought themselves too important or too unimportant—we’ll probably never know.
But ochre was important. It was one of the first materials we ever mined. Long before we were digging for gold, humans were exhuming iron. The earliest ochre mine is located in western Swaziland. The “Lion Cavern” was being used by Stone Age humans as long ago as 43,000 years (compare that to the earliest gold mine, which was probably active 7,000 years ago). Ochre wasn’t just paint—it was a way to possess color, a way to anoint the dead and celebrate the living. Ochre allowed early humans a level of control over what they saw in the world. It was plentiful, and still is—iron makes up 35 percent of the earth’s mass and 5 percent of the earth’s crust. Even though other colors have been deemed too environmentally dangerous to produce, ochre isn’t going anywhere. Unlike mummy brown or Scheele’s green or Prussian blue, you can still buy pure powdered ochre online (red or yellow) for under $10 and recreate the cave paintings in your own backyard.
But the material has become divorced from the color name, and you can also buy acrylic paints called “yellow ochre,” which has become the paint of choice for many Aboriginal artists. The longest continuous art practice in the world can be found in Australia, where painters have been using earth pigments for tens of thousands of years, harvested directly from the burnt orange desert. In Victoria Finlay’s book, Color, she travels to the Aboriginal settlement of Papunya where in 1971, following centuries of oppression by European colonizers, a young teacher named Geoffrey Bardon gave some of his students acrylic paints. He had observed kids drawing patterns in sand, and he wanted to see what happened when they had colorful paint. The resulting artwork was unlike anything on the European art market. It was filled with abstract figures (animals and human) surrounded by swirls and dots, shimmering patterns that seemed to move, like a mirage.
The elders of the tribe became interested in what was happening with Bardon and his students, so they approached him to ask for paint of their own. They wanted to create a mural on the side of the school, one that reflected their cultural heritage and their philosophy. Using a traditional palette of yellow, red, black, and white, they created a work called “The Honey Ant Dreaming,” which Finlay says would have been “one of Australia’s greatest pieces of art” if it still existed today. It does not, because it was painted over several times. First, by Aboriginal painters, who believed that the original mural showed too many of their secrets, its patterns and mythology too sacred for public consumption. The next iteration Bardon disliked. It was too figurative. It showed ants, more or less as they exist in nature. Bardon felt that this semirealist image was too much like the “whitefella” paintings that Aboriginal artists created to please European tastes and entice buyers at galleries. The final version was a compromise between the two (the sacred and the figurative), but that, too, was painted over a few years later.
This story feels both sad and triumphant. It’s tragic that a work was lost, but there are some things that should remain private, some beliefs too significant and transformative to put on the side of a wall. This desire to keep their art “secret,” Finlay suggests, might be another reason why Aboriginal artists till prefer to use nontraditional paints. Instead of using ochre, which can be found easily in the Australian hills and roads (it’s so plentiful that the dust is used to color concrete), many painters prefer plastic-based materials. Perhaps, Finlay says, it made it “less complicated for them to represent their Dreaming stories for outsiders if the materials themselves were not sacred but only represented sacred colors—like images in a mirror.”
Ochre has been used to create art on every inhabited continent (which rules out Antarctica). Archeologists have found yellow, brown, and red pigments applied to cave walls across the globe. And because it’s cheap and useful, artists continued to use ochre for a long time. You can find this subtle, brown-tinged yellow in works by single-name artists like Titian, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Monet, Seurat, El Greco, Cézanne, Degas—the list goes on and on. Sometimes, there’s just a smidge of yellow in a piece, representing a flower, a ray of sunlight, a dried hayfield, or a wan face. But some painters made the most of ochre—few European masters can touch Vermeer’s mastery of the material.
For Vermeer, ochre was an essential tool, one of his seven principal pigments, a list that also includes lead white, vermilion (made from powdered cinnabar), madder lake, green earth (celadonite and glauconite), raw umber (iron oxide and manganese oxide), and ivory black (derived from charred animal bones). Vermeer also used lead-tin-yellow for when he wanted a lighter, more buttery wash. But ochre was cheaper and it mixed well with his neutral paints. Vermeer’s compositions are never particularly bright—they’re quietly naturalistic. He could fill rooms with golden light by adding a bit of ochre to his white lead paint and using it to paint the background, the floor tiles, the area just beyond the window. He also liked to use ochre in his skin tones. He favored pale, yellowish women who look at the viewer silently, their features a mask. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a perfect example of his yellow-dipped style. Using a limited range of colors, he built a composition that rivals the Mona Lisa.
Vermeer and the Aboriginal painters are also linked by a shared understanding of light. For both the famous European master and the still relatively unsung Australian painters, ochre was a tool that could be used to imbue an image with the sun’s power. (“Unsung” is, perhaps, understating it. Even the National Gallery of Australia has fewer than ten desert paintings featured on their site.) These painters, on different continents, harvested something from deep in the earth and made it ethereal, turned it into the color of life, the color of the heavens.
Americans, too, understand the warming quality of yellow. While artists use it to capture fleeting beauty, us regular folk use it to inject brightness into our lives. This is perhaps one of the reasons that semigaudy mustard yellow is so prevalent in the normally staid and cold realm of New England architecture. I drive through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont all winter long on reporting jobs, and I often pass by white fields of snow, punctuated by ketchup- and mustard-colored homes, the sole spot of color in a monochrome landscape. They stand out next to the faded cedar shingles, the gray weathered woods that are so popular in this area. This is a trend that continues in contemporary building (it’s rare to see a new home painted, say, cobalt blue or turquoise in my neck of the woods) with deep historical precedents. The first houses built in the region were often left unpainted, or they used cheap, plentiful colors, like mustard yellow (made with yellow ochre), Falu red (i.e., red ochre), and lead white. From 1740 to 1780, writes Annie Graves in Yankee magazine, “if color was used at all, it was often a simple yellow ochre and iron oxide … mixed with white lead and linseed oil, and applied on site.”
Looking through my color books, it’s hard to find a time period when mustard or ochre wasn’t part of the American color palette. I have a book, Pantone: The 20th Century in Color, that breaks down each decade by its color trends. As I turned the pages, I noticed something curious. Almost every decade had its own burnt, brownish, golden yellow. The 1900s had Paul Poiret’s bright “yolk yellow,” the twenties had “rich gold.” Yolk resurfaces as Bauhaus design principles take off, and “radiant yellow” has a big moment in the thirties thanks to Leo Baekeland’s glossy plastic designs. There’s a whole spread on Edward Hopper, who used mustardy orange tones to paint his melancholy landscapes and diners, and another spread about midcentury modernists, who used a slightly lighter (yet still brown-tinted) yellow called “mimosa” for their pared-down designs. Perhaps the most famous yellow of the twentieth century is harvest gold, which was popular in the seventies, and frequently showed up in tandem with avocado green and rusty red. The only decade that didn’t really have a brown-yellow tone was the nineties. That era favored chartreuse-y greens and neon yellows, with some Tuscan beige and sage green mixed in (as did the early 2000s).
Even though we’re having a particularly mustardy moment, the color has been deep in our earth and in our history all along. The name you call it doesn’t matter much, though lately I’m finding myself partial to turmeric. Not the milk or the spice, exactly. I have tried to enjoy trendy turmeric-laced foods, including pancakes and lattes (the latter of which is, as writer Khushbu Shah points out, a fancy repackaging of a very common South Asian beverage you only drink when you are “feeling like shit”). Turmeric is fitting for our times. It’s a new name for an old color, but it’s also an unwitting correction spurred by America’s sudden “discovery” of the common spice. Mustard is yellow because of turmeric. Mustard seeds themselves are quite brown. English speakers have been calling this color “mustard” since the 1840s, and this whole time, we’ve been giving credit to the wrong spice. Mustard yellow was always turmeric yellow. I’m all for giving turmeric its due. To this New Englander, it sounds more inclusive than heartland yellow.
Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England with her two dogs and one husband. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine.