The History of Color by Decade: Popular Colors Over Time

Year 1900 number on an orange background

Most of us take colors for granted; but in reality, their study is a complex phenomenon, one that is influenced by several factors. In this brief guide, we will consider the history of color as well as the most popular colors over time and factors that influenced them.

Earliest known history of color

Paleolithic artists’ work seen on walls of caves as well as earliest recorded evidence shows the use of stone plates for grinding and mixing powders and naturally occurring earth pigments of iron and manganese. Naturally, colors like Charcoal black and dark brown were highly popular owing to the fact that they were easily obtainable by dry distillation of wood and other raw materials. Cinnabar and vermilion red were also some of the oldest and most widely used synthetic colors. Egyptian tombs showed evidence of some of the more popular colors in those times which included Azurite, obtained from basic copper carbonate. This gave rise to Egyptian Blue which remains one of the popular colors to date. Indigenous to India, Ceylon and Thailand, gum resin obtained from certain trees gave rise to colors like mustard yellow. Green earth color was also seen in Roman paintings and was believed to have been obtained from celadonite, a group of mica minerals. One of the most popular colors used in Roman war shields was Indigo which is also one of the oldest coloring materials ever used.

History of color through the decades

The popularity of different colors across the decades reflects the changing influences of politics, fashion, music, art and media on the history of color.

Popular color in the 1920-30s

The 1920s, or the “roaring twenties” showed a flourish in makeup for women as this era displayed growth and economic renewal. Eye makeup was heavy and shades like turquoise green and aqua blue were rather popular. Lipsticks in 1920s and 30s were characterized by deep reds, maroons, browns and raspberry. Architecturally, white was the most popular color in this decade: white kitchens, white cabinets and white appliances all spoke of a healthy, disease free environment.

Color in the 1940-50s

Most of the world was engaged in the World War during the early half of this decade. As a result, the colors of the American flag and stars and stripes were seen everywhere. This was also the Golden Age of the Silver screen and red was a popular color made famous by fashionable actresses like Ingrid Bergman and Vivien Leigh.

Popular Colors in the 1960-70s

This decade saw an eruption in the youth culture; sex, rock and roll and drugs were the order of the day. Psychedelic drugs turned people towards brighter colors like hot pink, vermillion orange and cyan blue. The 1970s was the Disco era and glitter and shimmer were a must have for an evening or night out in town. The Ford Mustang was a popular car in this decade and its colors ranged from hot pink to black with red being considered the most desirable car color. The African American population started to become more aware of their heritage during the 1970s, as a result of which colors in earthy hues started gaining popularity.

Popular colors in the 1980s

The economy flourished during this decade and colors became more vibrant and flamboyant. More women joined the workforce and MTV made stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson play an influential role in the choice of colors. Avocado, spice tones and mauve literally drove America mad in this decade!

Colors in the 1990s

The digital revolution with its promise of money, the bright colors of the iMac and the peaking of the Green Movement that started in the late 1960s made eye-popping colors highly popular in the early 90s. Lime green and chartreuse were highly popular colors but the minimalist movement was also showing its influence in this decade. Later, as the threat of the Y2K/ millennium bug hit, people simply wanted to ‘escape’. Spas and designer water therapies started popping everywhere which led Pantone® to name Caribbean Blue as the “color of the millennium” during this time.

Colors in 2000s

The dot com crash, the availability of easy credit and the continued influence of the minimalist movement allowed consumers to enjoy neutral colors without bringing ‘boring’ into the equation. Grays, beige, taupe and even white could have hundreds of subtle variations. Every homeowner seemed to want stainless steel appliances and metallic hues in his home. The 2010s again saw an inclination towards greens and blues but these were mixed with earthier hues that made them softer and less glitzy. Tangerine Tango was the color of the year in 2012, and it brought energy and vibrancy back on the scene.  Emerald green was picked in 2013 and it brought green and glitz in one package.

And that concludes my brief guide on the history of color. But, just as history repeats itself, the history of color will also likely repeat, so don’t be surprised if the most popular colors of the forgotten decades make a comeback!