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Rainbow fashion offers joy in a joyless time

Shoes, sweaters, watches, and pretty much everything else we wear are getting the hyper-colorful treatment.

A person’s feet wearing colorful sneakers.
These Gucci shoes are just one of many rainbow items all over fashion right now.
Robert Marquardt/Getty Images

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: rainbow hues presented in stripes or gradients all over clothing, jewelry, and other accessories for grown-ups. These products sit at price points both accessible and ultra high-end, from independent brands and mass market players alike. Occasionally, designers exercise artistic license and scramble the order in which a rainbow’s colors naturally occur. This still counts.

Rainbows go luxury with Balenciaga.
They also go mass, with Fashion Nova.
Fashion Nova

Where it is: splashed across fine jewelry collections, Gucci jackets and bags, Balenciaga T-shirts, and the entirety of designer Christopher Bailey’s final collection for Burberry, a statement of gay pride that also involved donations to multiple LGBTQ charities. On the more attainable side of things, Asos is selling rainbow glitter wedges, while Fashion Nova offers a variety of rainbow items, like a furry sweater and a cut-out bodysuit. From the indie designer corner, the New York-based brand For Good Luck sells ’80s wedding gowns that have been tie-dyed and cropped into cool and somewhat challenging tops, while the brand Farrow makes a more straightforward sequined rainbow tank.

The Ferragamo “Rainbow” sandals from the 1930s are an early example of the fashion industry’s interest in the color set.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why it’s everywhere: The history of rainbows in fashion is rich, from the iconic rainbow platform sandals that Salvatore Ferragamo made for Judy Garland in the 1930s to sequined mini-dresses from the swinging ’60s to the dramatic, brilliantly colored gowns Alexander McQueen sent down aughts runways — the most spectacular of which featured wing-like feathers rising around the collar. At the 2018 Met Gala, Lena Waithe stole the show in a Carolina Herrera cape that vibrantly and unequivocally referenced the LGBTQ pride flag, the rainbow’s most prominent cultural association.

Still, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the prevalence of rainbows in fashion lately. Nordstrom fashion director Elizabeth Kanfer says “bright, upbeat” colors, including rainbow spectrums, have been trending in clothing for several years now, while rainbow jewelry has been rising steadily over the last two. The popularity of rainbows in fashion and accessories seems to hinge upon the color scheme’s exuberance and joyfulness. It’s a reaction against the post-Recession dominance of minimalism, and, one might argue, a salve for the anxiety of modern life.

Lena Waithe wore a rainbow Carolina Herrera cape to last year’s Met Gala.
Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Susan Alexandra has applied a colorful look to her beaded bags and jewelry since she founded her namesake brand in 2015, and in the ensuing years, she’s noticed other designers coalescing around a similar aesthetic. Alexandra describes her designs, which often bear fruit motifs and smiley faces, as “very childlike, whimsical, and dreamy” — delightful in a pure, uncomplicated way. Her upcoming collection, which comes out in late spring, will feature literal rainbow arches.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that what excites me in design is almost exactly what would have excited me when I was 5 years old,” says Alexandra. “Maybe a little bit more refined.”

The “kidulting” movement is real. When I talked to Shelley Sanders, founder of the direct-to-consumer jewelry brand The Last Line, she, too, wondered whether her professional interest in rainbows is simply the 5 year old inside her talking. While there’s nothing inherently childish about a rainbow, it does have closer associations to kids’ toys, entertainment, clothing, and breakfast cereals than it does to the material world of adulthood. To wear The Last Line’s multicolored “Best Friends” necklace, one of many pieces in its rainbow collection, is to satisfy one’s inner tween — and, perhaps, to seek refuge in nostalgia at a time when the American political landscape and health of the planet seem particularly uncertain.

“The country feels very precarious,” says Alexandra. “People are craving something innocent, easy, palatable, and not heavy, and I feel that maybe the inclination for really joyous and sugary things is because we just need an antidote to the news, to the scariness.”

The rise of rainbow fashions isn’t exactly about regression, though: Sanders says a piece of rainbow jewelry can look slightly juvenile when it’s rendered in the classic ROYGBIV order, so she prefers to remix the arrangement of the colors, giving it a more unexpected and sophisticated look.

Susan Alexandra switches up the order and pattern of the rainbow spectrum in her bags and jewelry.
Susan Alexandra
The Last Line is another accessories brand that plays with color arrangement.
The Last Line

“You want to elevate it,” says Sanders. “It’s something classic, something people are familiar with, served up differently.”

The implications of rainbow dressing grow more complicated as the price point rises. The Last Line’s BFF necklace costs $1,429, meaning it’s definitely made to be purchased by adults with disposable income. This, however, pales in comparison to Rolex’s Rainbow Daytona watch, which came out in 2012 and has inspired a wave of copycats since. The Rainbow Daytona is wildly hard to acquire. Not only does it start around $86,000, but Rolex produces it in extremely limited quantities, driving its resale value up to three times its original price. Adam Levine has one, which he wore to perform during his widely panned 2019 Super Bowl halftime show. So do John Mayer and Mark Wahlberg.

While some jewelry brands mix sapphires, which come in a dazzling range of colors, with other stones like emerald, ruby, peridot, topaz, and amethyst — The Last Line and Venyx, which sells rainbow hoop earrings on Goop, for instance — the Rainbow Daytona only uses sapphires, creating a smooth, consistent fade from color to color. It’s blingy as hell, possibly implying to the casual observer that its owner has enough money and status to make this their “fun” watch.

The famously exclusive Rolex Rainbow Daytona watch.

“Truthfully, I think a long time ago it would have been a flashy thing, but now I think it’s tongue-in-cheek because it says you have a sense of humor about watches,” says Cara Barrett, an editor at the watch website Hodinkee, noting that her industry can be incredibly self-serious. “But of course you have to have enough money to buy it, so it’s also a ‘fuck you’ watch.”

Like Alexander, Barrett also sees consumer eagerness for rainbow accessories as a sign of the times: “I would say it’s a reflection of people just wanting to not think about how serious things can be in the real world.”

The popularity of rainbows is representative of a wider interest in saturated, dreamy colors. You may recall, for instance, the “unicorn” trend that rampaged through consumer culture a few years ago, leaving in its wake scores of artificially-colored Starbucks Frappuccinos and all manner of YouTube tutorials explaining how to create iridescent, cotton candy-hued makeup looks. Right now, soothing pastel gradients reign supreme in advertising and corporate branding. After the austerity of early 2010s minimalism, aesthetics have swung back toward the expressive and unserious. Groovy fonts reminiscent of the ’60s and ’70s have come into vogue in branding (see: Glossier Play, Flesh, Great Jones), and with them, the rainbow colors that wash over posters from that era.

Asos rainbow wedges.

Our thirst for color is even more apparent when you look at the art world, a world that, it should be noted, invariably influences fashion and jewelry brands. In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art focused an exhibit on Henri Matisse’s riotously colorful paper cutouts — a show that continues to inspire designers today — while the Guggenheim Museum saw success in 2016 with its Agnes Martin exhibit, a testament to the power of quiet, subdued tones.

More recently, the Guggenheim has been drawing hordes of New Yorkers and tourists alike with its Hilma af Klint exhibit, which opened in New York in October. Working at the turn of the 20th century (and in a manner now considered well ahead of her time), af Klint filled huge canvases with overwhelming, invigorating colors — lilac, yellow, orange, baby blue, pink — and incorporated actual rainbow spectrums into some of her smaller works. The Guggenheim says that sales of the show’s $65 catalogue are already the highest in the museum store’s history, having surpassed its 2009 Kandinsky exhibit. Photos of af Klint’s paintings have exploded on social media.

Of course they have. Despite the emotionality of af Klint’s work — and of rainbows in general — Alexandra says there’s another, more mundane reason why these colors are having a moment: Instagram, the accelerant of basically every design trend.

“That’s how my business really launched,” she says. “When you’re scrolling and you have so much stimulation, the way to stand out is with color. It stops you in your tracks, a vibrant, saturated photo. I think that’s why people are so liberally using color.”

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