Fashion

Rainbow bright! How the symbol of optimism and joy spread across our clothes, homes and lives in 2020


The rainbows started appearing all over Italy within a few days of schools closing for the first lockdown, back in March. Crayon drawings were taped to the inside of windows; poster-painted banners hung from balconies. When the pandemic came to Britain the rainbows came too, with the Italian message of positivity andrà tutto bene (everything will be all right) morphing into thanks to the NHS. Then, during the months of lockdown, the rainbows moved inside our homes, with a craze for arranging books by colour in pursuit of an aesthetically pleasing Zoom backdrop.

The rainbow is to 2020 what “keep calm and carry on” was to 1939. And, just as “keep calm and carry on” began as a public information campaign but became a tea towel industry, what began as a gesture of hope is now big business. John Lewis reports that an £8 rainbow bauble is an early festive bestseller. (After a decade of tasteful soft-white fairy lights, I predict a comeback this year for multicoloured Christmas tree lights – rebranded, no doubt, as “rainbow lights”.) Shiver ’n’ Shake Rainbow Kate, a gaudy-haired £40 doll with a thermometer for reading her temperature when she shakes with “fever”, is tipped as one of the toys of the season. Meanwhile, tracksuit aficionados are sitting out the second lockdown in Olivia Rubin’s £150 pastel-toned rainbow stripe tracksuits.

A shop window in central London in April.
A shop window in central London in April. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Optimism is the hottest commodity of 2020 and its stock is rising fast. After the US election, with hopes soaring that the medical cavalry will soon ride to our rescue with a vaccine, spring’s poignant hand-painted hope is gaining in confidence and glamour. In the early, uncertain hours of vote-counting last week, Dr Jill Biden stood alongside her husband on stage in Delaware as he reminded his supporters that “it ain’t over until every vote is counted”. Her black face mask was emblazoned with the words “breathe” and “positivity”, spelled out in rainbow letters.

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Somewhere over the rainbow … troubles melt like lemon drops, sang Judy Garland. But hope comes in other colours too. In 2018, Christopher Kane’s London fashion week show included a black T-shirt with the words “More joy”, spelled out in white in the distinctive Optima typeface of the 1972 classicThe Joy of Sex. The T-shirt “was photographed everywhere, and each time we released drops on our website it would sell out”, remembers Kane. “More joy” became “a daily mantra” for Kane, and a mini-brand in its own right. “More joy” socks, mugs, blankets and face masks have been a commercial lifeline for the brand this year, with boutiques shut and demand for party dresses at an all-time low. And the appetite for hope is fuelling demand in beauty and interiors, as well as fashion. Rose essential oil, prized for its uplifting and antidepressant properties, is the latest buzz ingredient in skincare. Candles – both a symbol and an actual source of light in the dark – have been one of the few retail success stories of 2020, with Net-a-Porter reporting sales of scented candles up 130% year on year during the first lockdown.

But it is the full prism of colours that has become the Maga cap of the optimism movement. At Kurt Geiger, rainbow-embellished shoes and bags have been a brand signature for two years, after being introduced “a little bit by accident, if I’m honest”, says the creative director, Rebecca Farrar-Hockley. “One day we were laying out metallic adornments in a row to decide which colour we liked best as an accent on a shoe, and we realised how good they all looked together. We thought it would be something that braver, edgier customers would go for, but it turns out to have huge appeal. It has been our bestseller for two years, but during lockdown demand massively accelerated.” Customers range across all age groups, and rainbow masks and rainbow-accented trainers sell to men as well as women.

Kurt Geiger trainer.
Kurt Geiger trainer.
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“I think people are drawn to colour during difficult times, as part of a wider shift in re-evaluating their priorities,” says Laura Lambert, whose Fenton & Co fine jewellery brand, selling colourful, ethically sourced gems, has sailed through lockdown with sales steadily rising. “Colour represents emotion. This year, rainbows have shown support for a national service that we rely on every day but is not normally front of most people’s minds.”

“Colour has frequency,” says the fashion editor turned designer JJ Martin, whose Milan-based label La DoubleJ is a maximalist celebration of Italy and vintage design. One of her T-shirts spells out “Ready to resurrect” in lilac, peach, crimson and daffodil-yellow letters; sweaters read “Raise your vibration” and “Manifesting my head off”. The more uplifting the message, the better the response, Martin says. “I’m not interested in being cool. I’m in the business of joy. This is a joy factory.”

Rainbows as a positive symbol arch across cultures and epochs. In Indigenous Australian mythology, the rainbow serpent can replenish water, and stop rain sent by enemies. In the Old Testament, God sends Noah a rainbow as a sign that life can resume after the flood. Since 1978, when San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag, the rainbow has stood as the international symbol of the LGBTQ movement, and an emblem of diversity in sexuality. The rainbow has been a logo for joy on the high street since 1999, when Gap debuted its “crazy stripe” knitwear as a holiday-season special. Those sweaters were an immediate hit, reprised in Gap stores most years since. The 1999 collection is so venerated that original knits change hands for several hundred pounds on eBay.

Rainbows at Alternative Pride in Madrid in June.
Rainbows at Alternative Pride in Madrid in June. Photograph: Ely Pineiro/Getty Images
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But not everyone is happy. Some in the LBGTQ community lament the newfound ubiquity of a symbol that is hugely meaningful in the visual history of Pride celebrations. Some people are exasperated by the jazz-hands, Pollyanna vibes. And others are irritated by the way consumer culture commodifies the human experience, packaging our hopes and dreams as if they were just another product in the warehouse. But, says Martin: “At the root of hope and optimism is faith; faith that things will turn around and be brighter. It’s great to have the colourful dress, but what really counts is the flame you turn on inside yourself. That kind of hope is an anchor that you can hold on to, even when the storm comes. It is a radical act.”

Last week, a Boston University study suggested that people with the highest levels of optimism have an 11% to 15% longer life span than people who don’t practise much positive thinking. The highest-scoring optimists have the greatest odds of living to 85 or beyond, with results enduring even when class, health, depression, smoking, social engagement, poor diet and alcohol use are considered.

“There will only be a better tomorrow if we make one,” says Farrar-Hockley. “When we wear symbols of positivity, that’s not simply a passive act. It can become part of us assuming agency, and taking responsibility for our own part in that better tomorrow.”

Hope, in other words, can help. The magic of a rainbow isn’t really about the pot of gold, but the calm after the storm. In the optimism economy, it really is the thought that counts.



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