'90s Kids Remember: How teal became an icon of a decade
There’s an aphoristic template for online memes that goes something like this:
In a four-square template, four images appear. A Tamagotchi, a Netscape icon, a can of Surge, a Blockbuster VHS tape...the list of potential permutations goes on and on. No matter what vaguely nostalgic items are used, the message at the end is always the same, lending itself to memetic imitation time and again: “Only 90s kids will remember.”
Whether they’re taken seriously or as a joke, there is a pallet of design choices that colored the 1990s, especially for the children that grew up during the decade. Though we don’t often associate a color pallet with an entire decade, a “90s kid” would have been hard-pressed to have made it out of the decade without owning at least one piece of clothing or other memorabilia that was not unapologetically teal, purple, yellow or any of their pastel variants.
To “90s kids,” those hues colored their world of dial-up, Pokemon, and Taco Bell kid’s meals. But today, designers and average citizens alike look back at their younger selves and question why they would ever dress in a color pallet more befitting of a Wildberry Pop-Tart than a human being.
Even for all of the nostalgic wonderment surrounding these typical 90s colors, they were not bestowed upon the world from on high as 1989 ticked over into the new year of 1990. Rather, at least two of these cornerstone colors - which would come to inform the design aesthetics of a generation - came from a more humble, and perhaps unexpected, source.
The teal revolution began in 1988, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But before that in 1987, the National Basketball Association or NBA was looking to expand. In the previous decade, the league had faltered to attract a growing audience. Central to this issue was a problem seen today in Major League Baseball: while the fans are still coming, they are getting older and older without being replaced by a younger demographic. This issue played in the background as the NBA went through a new round of expansions in 1987, awarding an expansion franchises to Charlotte. The executives behind the Charlotte expansion team (which would come to be known as the Charlotte Hornets) wanted to make a splash, cognizant of role visual culture was playing in the lives of young people. While there were lots of gimmicky ways to endear themselves to a young audience (such as a quirky mascot), the Charlotte Hornets executives decided to take a route that would make their team unforgettable, day in and day out, regardless of the athletes performance on the court.
To borrow from Robert Frost, the Hornets took the road less taken. And that road was paved in teal.
To ensure that the Hornets basketball team would become uniquely iconic from the moment they stepped onto the scene, the Hornets executives commissioned clothing designer and North Carolina-native Alexander Julian to create a jersey-shorts set that would attract the eyes of new fans and draw the attention of veteran fans. Julian accomplished this goal as he returned a kit set that would set the tone for design choices in sporting and beyond for the better part of the next decade.
Description alone cannot do his work justice, but the Hornet’s kit was groundbreaking on several fronts. The jersey featured two firsts for the NBA - teal as a primary color and four vertical pinstripes on the body of the jersey. These medium-weight pinstripes were also colored to set their appearance off from the teal canvas, rather than blend in. These pinstripes were, from right to left: white, blue, green, and purple. This top was matched with a pair of vibrant teal shorts that, when taken together with the jersey, would lead to a colorful moniker for the Hornets: the Men in Teal.
Altogether, this kit managed to mix the traditional athletic class of pinstripes with the exotic attraction of a rare shade of blue-green. All the same, the Hornet’s jersey broke from the traditional design aesthetic of the nearly 40-year old basketball league. Many of the storied designs of the NBA had grown up from a tradition of practicality, where every number and letter affixed to a jersey had to be sewn on by hand. As such, most designs were fairly simple and unobtrusive, with a set of numbers on the front and back, the team’s name or city on the front (typically in a block font) and the player’s last name on the back. This simple design motif could be seen with the Boston Celtics or the Chicago Bulls, whose red, black, and white jersey kit would soon become the epitome of class and maturity on the back of Michael Jordan. The Hornet's choice to go the unconventional route was intentional, as their bold teal jersey was actively at odds with the “less is more” mentality of other contemporary jerseys.
In their first season, the Hornets gave their fans little to cheer for beyond their jersey design. The team wallowed at the bottom of the league, finishing 1988 with a 20-63 record. But despite their abysmal results on the court, the Hornets managed to attract a fair number of young fans. Though these fans couldn’t have been impressed with the play going on on the court, they were surely impressed enough to open their wallets and purchase replica Hornets jerseys.
Replica jerseys were just coming into vogue in the NBA, in part due to cheaper production processes making their availability more accessible to a wider audience. The Hornets were able to leverage the flashy appeal of their jerseys into sales, with the original teal jersey matching sales figures with those worn by teams who were winning championships during the late 1980s. Even as the team’s success picked up, the Hornets had hit on a new means of financial success that appealed to young audiences in order to get them locked into the visual appeal of the sport, with the hope that the initial appeal would transform into a bonafide interest.
Call it “teal magic,” if you will, because black magic might imply a more sinister intent.
The Hornet’s teal jersey was not the only instigator in the growing teal tide of the early 1990s. Though their jersey had started the trend, the color may not have become so synonymous with the 1990s had it not been for the myriad of other sports franchises that had chosen to float their boats on this rising tide. After the popularity of Hornet’s jersey became apparent, other major league sports franchises were quick to snap up the color and add it to their team pallet. The NBA and NHL were the first to make the jump, with the forming adding teal to their pallet in 1989 and the later setting teal as their team’s primary color in the 1991 expansion.
The teal wave formed into a tsunami in 1993, as several more teams took the field in teal. The expansion franchise Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL played their inaugural season in teal, as did the Florida Marlins of MLB.
The wave rolled on into 1995 and 1996, as the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies took after their NBA counterparts with a fully teal jersey in their inaugural season. The wave crested by 1998, with two new MLB expansion franchises - the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks - taking the field with shades of teal and turquoise in their uniform kits. By the time the 1990s faded, every major sports league was inundated with this sea-faring color.
As the 1990s rolled on, the inundation of the color teal and its “compliments” of purple, yellow, and orange all became a part of the visual vocabulary of pop culture. As always, the younger demographic steered the ship of pop culture trends and these young influencers steered their ship into fathoms of teal water. Clothing, school supplies, drink cups (you know the one), and more became canvases for bold strokes of teal, often painted into a wide assortment of geometric shapes. These colors and shapes, no doubt, got a boost from the bold stylings of the Memphis Group, whose furniture creations of the mid-to-late 1980s featured crisp geometric patterns and were referred to by one reviewer as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.”
Teal was avant-garde, to a degree, and popular culture in the 1990s fully embraced the chance to break away visually in such a clear and concise fashion. Even now, the aforementioned “90s kids” carry a fondness for teal and purple attire. This has led to a resurgence in appearances of teal in pop culture, given that many of those “90s kids” are old enough to have families now or, at the very least enough money to feed their childhood nostalgia.
In short, the color teal became the embodiment of everything that was youthful, sporty, and iconoclastic about the 1990s. Starting with the Charlotte Hornets and bubbling outwards, teal became an intentional choice to be different that marked a turning point in the youth-centric culture of the decade. Though many will remember teal as color that embodied the idea of embracing a trend, those who lived and breathed the color as a part of their formative youth still hold it in a special place in their memory, as a part of an idealized, nostalgic past.
A good deal of the historical retrospective for this piece came from the excellent work of Paul Lukas, “sports journalism's foremost uniform reporter” for ESPN.com. He can be found at his website, https://uni-watch.com.
I was also inspired to write about the iconic Charlotte Hornets jersey after listening to Episode 311 “The Barney Design” of Roman Mars’ design and architecture podcast, 99% Invisible. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the subtle pieces of design that influence the public sphere, even as they are overlooked by most.