In need of a style pick-me-up? Why chartreuse is the colour to try now

ballerina Alicia Markova wearing a chartreuse two piece (and pointe shoes) in Vogue, 1944
Ballerina Alicia Markova wearing a chartreuse two piece (and pointe shoes) in Vogue, 1944 Credit: John Rawlings/Conde Nast

With temperatureS rising and an end to lockdown in sight, your thoughts may be turning to what on earth to wear as we take our first steps back towards BC (before corona) normality. When lockdown began in March, we were still firmly in knitwear and jacket weather, but the early days of summer are now here - and if you've been reliant on a wardrobe of athleisurewear and PJs, dressing for the office or even socialising could take some adjusting to.

Rather than immediately don tailoring or special-occasionwear, I'd recommend injecting your existing wardrobe with a dose of newness and vibrancy in the form of this season's vivid colour of choice: chartreuse.

It took the Carthusian monks over a century to perfect the liqueur that they distilled in the Chartreuse Mountains north of Grenoble: they got their hands on the original recipe in 1605. That unmistakable colour - the vivid halfway point between yellow and green - is a by-product of the 130 plants and flowers in the recipe (no wonder it took so long; I’m lucky to find dill in my local supermarket). 

The monks must have marvelled at the colour, but I doubt they would have imagined that it would prove so fashionable and unfashionable at turns, one of those Marmite trends that provokes strong opinions on both ends of the spectrum. 

The tipple might be French, but it was the 1920s preoccupation with the Orient that first made chartreuse the shade to wear. It was loud, a little off-kilter, and unerringly grown-up: only fitting for a drink that’s 55 per cent alcohol. Can a colour be subversive? In the hands of the right femmes fatales, and the right fashion designers, yes: chartreuse became the colour to wear after dark. 

The ‘60s, an era of graphic boldness in fashion, repurposed the shade. In the ‘70s it became a foil for graphic prints. But the inebriated elephant in the room is that chartreuse is not always the easiest colour to wear. 

Leonie Hanne in February 2020 Credit: Getty

In an article that appeared in The New York Times in March 1988, journalist Patricia Leigh Brown documented a chartreuse comeback ‘on the covers of Vogue and Seventeen,’ though ‘“the colour of the season”’ was not an entirely welcome one: ‘''It's truly unfortunate that somebody is trying to promote chartreuse,'' said the noted makeup expert Pablo Manzoni. ''Chartreuse is a miserable color. Nobody looks good in it. Because of the high condensation of green and yellow, it is lethal, I repeat, lethal. The teeth look yellow. This is just a deadly thing.''’

Thankfully, dentistry has improved somewhat in the last 32 years. And, despite what Manzoni says, it’s possible to look fantastic in chartreuse. Firstly, find the right shade for you - a bit more lime, a little more yellow… Then, if it doesn’t enhance your eyes or skin tone, keep it away from the face - try a skirt or pair of trousers in the hue, paired with a crisp white cotton shirt or black silk blouse.

Blazer, £49, Topshop, and matching trousers, £30, Topshop; dress, £310, Stine Goya; skirt, £640, Molly Goddard at MatchesFashion.com; scarf, £22.50, White Stuff

A little goes a long way - a scarf tied at the neck, around the handle of a bag or through belt loops will update what you already have. And chartreuse is a great way to zing up neutrals like camel and tan, khaki, black and grey. Or, of course, you can be that bit braver and wear a whole dress or suit in the shade. It might feel a far cry from your trackies, but that could be just the mood booster you need. Yellow is known to provoke feelings of optimism, while green is calming - and as we could all use a bit of both right now, a colour that bridges the two - and looks fabulous in the process - couldn't be more welcome. 

Tracking the trend

1960s

Baby Jane Holzer in 1965 Credit: Getty

Baby Jane Holzer typifies ‘60s style in this minidress, but she also offers a lesson in making the shade work for anyone - the addition of a white collar next to the face is a complexion-flattering one. 

1970s

Princess Anne in 1975 Credit: Getty

Princess Anne opted for a graphic print rather than a block of colour for a chic summer look in 1975 - and it would be a welcome alternative to ubiquitous florals in 2020, too. Plus, you know the Queen would approve of any bright shade - they are her staples, after all.

2020s

Valentino spring/summer 2020 Credit: Getty

On Valentino’s spring/summer 2020 catwalk, creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli showed great swathes of chartreuse fabric, like this dramatically draped summer dress paired with understated flat sandals. 

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