Three artists, two Gossip Girl stars, and one Pantone specialist helped us re-envision the rainbow using 2021’s best colour trends.
By guest author Brennan Kilbane from Allure
April showers bring May flowers.
And then summer arrives, its radiant light is diffused through the humid air, and that’s why June is full of rainbows.
When a sunbeam crosses paths with a raindrop, it explodes into a brilliant series of varying wavelengths that the eye distinguishes as different colors, from red (the longest wavelength, crest to trough) to yellow to blue to violet (the shortest). The phenomenon happens often enough to warrant almost no media coverage, except for once in 2010, when a video of two parallel rainbows arching over Yosemite National Park went viral. Not because double rainbows are rare — they aren’t — but because the man recording the video was so moved by the experience that he could not help but speak to the sky.
The rainbow itself came out in the late ’70s. Harvey Milk, then California’s first openly gay politician, asked the artist and drag queen Gilbert Baker to design a symbol for the nascent LGBTQ+ rights movement. Gilbert went with an eight-stripe rainbow flag, with each color representing some salient element of the gay experience, beginning with hot pink (the carnal), moving through yellow and green (sunlight and nature), and ending at violet (the spirit). Eventually, the hot pink was dropped, and turquoise and indigo coalesced into a single blue. It’s flown everywhere love is, but especially in June; the month of pride.
Summer in the northern hemisphere arrives with rainbows, but we see them all of our lives. “Is there a person alive who can’t say that when they were a child, they drew pictures of rainbows?” asks Leatrice Eiseman, who is officially the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute and unofficially the most prominent color expert in the Western hemisphere. From the cinnamon sands of Tucson, she advises the rest of the human world on the art, science, and business of color. Pantone’s library of shades includes over 3000 unique colours spanning the visual spectrum — only about three ten-thousandths of a percent of the colours the human eye can perceive (up to 10 million). But they reverberate throughout our lives anyway.
What is McDonalds without blazing 485 C (the juicy red of Happy Meal boxes) and golden 123 C (“French fry yellow”)? In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep tries to impart the meticulousness of colour in fashion by eviscerating Anne Hathaway after she conflates two shades of turquoise. Hathaway’s sweater, Streep points out, is cerulean, a variant of cobalt that she says was adopted by the fashion industry in 2002 — two years after the real-life Eiseman and Pantone announced cerulean as the colour of the millennium and the company’s first Colour of the Year. Hathaway’s character, tragically, wears it in 2006.
At the end of 2020, Eiseman revealed that 2021 would have two Colors of the Year: Ultimate Gray, a matte silver, and Illuminating, the closest thing Pantone has to the color of sunshine. “It does carry with it the spirit of enlightenment,” Eiseman tells me. “I think that’s what this year has brought about, you know, enlightening us to examine more of our feelings.” This, Eiseman hopes, will also be expressed in dazzling violets and pinks, in ochres and prunes, in Exotic Orange and Mykonos Blue. Allure asked Eiseman to compose a contemporary rainbow of seven representative colors — remember ROYGBIV, from your childhood? — which then arched from Tucson to New York and landed on actors Jordan Alexander and Whitney Peak of HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot. (By the way, you can try all these looks on yourself using the YouCam app.) In Irish folklore, those who travel the rainbow are rewarded with treasure, but that is the stuff of legend. Seeing one is golden enough.
Plainly: Red pumps us up. “Any person who’s ever bought a red tie, red socks, red whatever, they know that it’s going to attract attention,” says Pantone’s Eiseman. And it might just give you a competitive advantage: Analyzing data from four combat sports during the 2004 Summer Olympics, researchers at Durham University in England found that the athletes who wore red uniforms won more competitions in every sport (such as wrestling and tae kwon do) than those who wore blue. The red of this moment, according to Eiseman, skews bluer than candy apple but punchier than wine.
When fiery red and sunshine yellow collide, they somehow amount to something more boisterous than the sum of their parts — which is perhaps why, as Eiseman explains, the color has historically been less popular than its brothers and sisters in the BIV family. But lately, Pantone research has observed that orange is more popular than ever, hence Exotic Orange: a balanced yellow red that evokes daisy petals and cosmos.
Eiseman and her team chose Illuminating alongside Ultimate Gray to represent the palette for 2021; one colour somber and solid, the other bursting with joy and hope. As the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, the two shades happen to comprise the color scheme of Washington, DC’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, created the previous year.
Eiseman’s pick for green is a departure from her vibrant streak, tending toward a darker, more natural shade—closer to those you find on a forest floor than on sun-dappled treetops. Green “is so entrenched in people’s minds,” she says. “The preservation of things that are natural and wanting to hold onto them; the sincerity of anything that’s natural.”
“It’s one of those most-popular places. When you ask people where they would go, they say, ‘Oh, my God, I want to cruise in the Greek islands,'” says Eiseman. This marine shade recalls the Aegean as well as the cobalt-domed churches that pepper the cliff sides. “Blue was always symbolic of the heavens, and in m any cultures that’s what it means,” she explains. “So it has deep religious significance as well. The Greeks very much embrace that idea.”
The petals of gloxinia, a relative of the African violet, unfold in an exquisite gradient, but the Pantone shade refers to a very specific, warmed-up-but-still-a-bit-cool purple. The sort of violet found in nature comes from natural pigments called anthocyanins, which absorb green but reflect shades of red, blue, and together, purple. Something about that inherent polarity makes the color strangely compatible with any member of its colour family; Eiseman notes that in design multiple shades of purple will harmonise with one another, instead of clashing or blending together.