The smiley face started out as an illustration for an insurance advertisement. Designed by a graphic artist named Harvey Bell, the ubiquitous yellow smiley has grinned its way back into popular culture (again!). Gen Z has embraced the little yellow ball of happiness, and you can find a smiley face t-shirt, tiny purse, or smiley face baseball cap in many a trendy boutique.

But what are the reasons why smiley face fashion is making a comeback? There are many theories but no definitive answer. Fashion does what it does, but here are some educated guesses gleaned from sources like Teen Vogue and Harper’s:

It Says What It Means

There’s really no misinterpreting the smiley face. Sunny yellow with a swooping upturned grin, the smiley just beams “happy.” And after the past nearly two years of roller-coaster catastrophes, maybe we just need a little happy in our wardrobe. The smiley face assertively claims that getting dressed, and living in general, should be fun.

It Appeals to a Sense of Irony

Millennials elevated irony to a—well, if not an art form, at least a generation-defining attitude. Grunge artists kicked off the trend by appropriating the smiley face with some serious alterations, like the X-ed out eyes of the Nirvana logo.

Now, Gen Zers (or Zoomers, as they’re sometimes called—now the largest living generation) grabbed the smiley trend and threw in some of their grandparents’ tie-dyed t-shirts and flare-leg jeans to go with it. While grunge smileys harken back to the ‘90s, a smiley face beanie topping off a tie-dyed shirt and pants that Grandma called “bell-bottoms” sends us all the way back to the early ‘70s.

It Lifts Your Mood

Perhaps one reason smiley face fashion is making a comeback is that it complements trends from years that still had a hippie, free-and-easy kind of vibe: the smiley goes perfectly with that sensibility. Maybe the smiley face is there to lift our spirits in tough times and reassure us that we can get through all this. So put on your smiley face hat and the positive attitude that comes with it, and try to enjoy your day!

December 10, 2021 — Ryan Mercado