This has been a year in which supposedly well-informed people have turned out to be woefully wrong in their predictions about many things, some of them really quite important, which makes me feel slightly better about what I am about to admit. OK, here goes: I was wrong, in February, about Alicia Vikander’s Oscars dress. I was right to say that she was channelling Belle from Beauty and the Beast, in her lemon strapless dress. But what I failed to grasp was that, in 2016, this was in fact a good thing; that Disney’s Belle was about to be rediscovered as a feminist hero by actor and UN goodwill ambassador Emma Watson. In an upcoming live-action film, Watson plays her as “a feisty young woman who spoke her mind and had all these ambitions, and was incredibly independent, wanted to see the world and was so smart”. In the new film, Belle has been brought up to date and given a career as an inventor. The yellow dress from the 1991 original, however, retains pride of place on screen – albeit with the sickly, 90s shade of the original (very Cher in Clueless, looking back) filtered into a softer mid-century yellow, the sort of shade that makes for a chic velvet sofa against a grey wall.
The yellow dress is the curveball hit for a curveball era. It is a symbol of the new strange reality, of a time when the upset has become the norm. It is armour for a time when we must expect the unexpected. Beauty and the Beast arrives in UK cinemas in March, but the sunshine-coloured frock will land in our consciousness come January with the gorgeous, bonkers Damien Chazelle-directed movie La La Land, which features Emma Stone tap-dancing in the Hollywood Hills, with Ryan Gosling, in a frothy yellow cocktail dress. That dress captures the spirit of a film that has one metal-toed brogue in the 21st century and the other in the 1950s. It’s lighthearted one moment and heartbreaking the next.
It may once have been the mark of a bridesmaid too meek to demand a more flattering colour, but the yellow dress has changed its spots. This is a dress that stands for boldness, bravery and the unexpected. Witness Beyoncé in the most famous image from Lemonade, which was released in spring, less than two months after Alicia Vikander wore her dress at the Oscars. The Roberto Cavalli dress Beyoncé wore in the Hold Up video was hot sauce in fashion form, all flamenco ruffles and spicy mustard tones, accessorised with a black lace bra and a baseball bat. The video’s stylist, B Akerlund, said at the time that “with the context of the video being a little bit violent, we were really looking for something of the opposite to make it flirty and positive and sexy and to sort of enhance a woman’s strengths. You can be emotional, but yet sexy and strong without giving too much.” Unlike the pink dress, with its deeply feminine roots, a yellow dress on a woman raises an eyebrow at gender roles. This, after all, is the colour traditionally bought by pregnant mothers who do not yet know the sex of their baby. If Beyoncé’s Hold Up dress has a fashion forerunner, it is that icon of gender-neutral power dressing, Queen Elizabeth I. Witness Cate Blanchett in mustard velvet, as the Virgin Queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, yelling, “I too can command the wind sir,” as she dismisses the Spanish ambassador.
In 2017, mustard yellow will have a new name. Donatella Versace, who used the colour liberally in her Versus Versace spring collection, calls it “mango”. Fashion’s crush on yellow dates back to 2003, and a particular vintage pale-lemon off-one-shoulder dress that Kate Moss wore to a fashion-week dinner in New York in 2003. I was there that night, and I still can’t explain what exactly was so special about that dress, but there was an indefinable magic about it: Grace Kelly mid-century elegance, spiked with the bold yellow of a summer-of-love smiley face.
Yellow dresses have made waves at the Oscars ever since: think of Cate Blanchett in lemon Valentino with an oxblood sash in 2005, or Michelle Williams in 2006 in a Vera Wang frock in the lurid sweet yellow of a Cadbury’s Creme Egg yolk. In 2011, the Queen confirmed yellow as her go-to power-dressing shade when she chose it for the royal wedding. Looking back, we should have seen Rihanna’s omelette spectacular at the Met Ball in 2015 coming. The omelette dress took something of the grand romance of the yellow robes from Klimt’s The Kiss, and brought them bang up to date by making them look a bit like a breakfast you might post on Instagram with a lolz caption.
By 2016, the yellow dress was on a catwalk roll; the colour was catnip to the quirky aesthetic of the designers who dominate fashion right now. Alessandro Michele’s Gucci autumn 2016 collection included a feathered coat dress with matching turban, sunglasses, handbag, tights and shoes, all in yellow. The very first look from Balenciaga’s pre-fall collection, the first released by the house in the era of new designer Demna Gvasalia, featured Stella Tennant in a highlighter-pen yellow dress, with matching beanie. (And next summer’s M&S fashion preview showed several yellow frocks.)
And if the yellow dress has a menswear equivalent, it is the bright yellow “Security” logo hoodie from Justin Bieber’s Purpose tour merchandise. The sweatshirt has become an It boy staple: Bieber himself wore it out to his London birthday dinner at Sushi Samba, while Brooklyn Beckham chose one for the red-carpet moment that is the Beckham family landing at LAX. Like the yellow dress, the Security hoodie is designed to look slightly out of place. Fashion reflects the times we live in. Nobody saw the yellow dress coming, although, with hindsight, the clues were there all along. What look could possibly be more now?