Purple, a colour prominent in nature, has always signified a certain opulence and power. Historically worn by rulers of the Byzantine Empire – as well as the Holy Roman Empire – it was later also adopted by Roman Catholic bishops and, as a result, Catholic monarchs in Europe. In Japan, too, purple was associated with the ruling emperor and nobility. Outside of the confines of places of power, purple was frequently seen in genre painting and impressionist artwork. By the 19th and 20th Centuries, deeper tones of the colour were attributed to more serious aspects of life, often seen on widows mourning the loss of their husband – a trend that was further popularised by Queen Victoria following the death of Prince Albert.
Due to its affinity with nature, it is often associated with witchcraft, magic, and mystery – a fact that could go some way towards explaining the purple hues adorning the artwork for Disney’s Aladdin (1992) such as Aladdin and Abu’s waistcoats, the magic carpet, and the night sky An elegant tone that offers an alternative to the traditional black, purple is the perfect choice for evening gowns and cocktail dresses. Take a look below at eight examples of inspirational purple fashions and accessories, to discover why it was purple, as opposed to a different colour, that was chosen for these images?
CHARLES EDOUARD BOUTIBONNE ' THE LETTER' (1868)
Boutibonne – a student of the famous German portrait painter of upper-class society, Franz Xavier Winterhalter – was known for depicting domestic scenes and everyday life. Here, the artist portrays two young women, both clothed in colours reflective of the mourning stage they are in. The lady in black crumples a letter in her hand, as the lady dressed in a matching purple winter outfit, gestures at herself. The title of the work – The Letter – points to the main subject of the painting. As the viewer takes in the piece, they begin to wonder about the relationship of the two women and their interaction. Is one consoling the other? Are they sharing their experiences of grief in response to sad news? Or are they perhaps comparing the gravity of their losses – the lady in purple certain that it is she who suffered more?
FRANS VERHAS 'THE NEW BRACELET' (c.1880)
At first glance The New Bracelet is a pleasant depiction of bourgeois life. What then, could the purple colour of the subject’s dress mean? One possible explanation is that it signifies a foreboding. From the title of the painting it can be assumed that the gold bracelet, which the woman carefully examines in her hands, is from an enamored admirer or even a current lover. The purple hue of the rich gown she wears may therefore be symbolic of her love-interest’s ill will, dishonest intentions, or simply of his looming death. This, however, is just one way of reading the painting. Verhas was known for depicting opulent interiors, with particular attention paid to rendering textiles, tapestries, silks, and the many textures that were often found in luxurious homes of the 19th-century. He may have merely wanted to display the beauty of pale lilac: his skilled placement of the folds of taffeta and light reflections undoubtedly achieve this, regardless of intention.
FELIX VALLOTTON 'PURPLE HAT' (1907)
Felix Vallotton was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Like many of his paintings, Purple Hat features a striking combination of colours. The subdued tone of the plain, moss-green background places emphasis on the curious shape of the subject’s wide-brimmed, feather-adorned hat. The titular fashion accessory is even more surprising considering the rest of the woman’s outfit. Typically, a hat would complete an already finished look, yet the woman Vallotton depicts is not fully clothed, either dressing or undressing; either way, the hat is an unusual addition. However, through her facial expression and the faint purple tones of her skirt and bodice, one could assume that the outfit she would normally wear is reflective of the mourning state she is in.
GEORGE LEPAPE, illustration in CAZETTE du BON TON (July 1913)
As stated in its description, Lepape’s pochoir illustration portrays an evening cloak by fashion designer Paul Poiret. Featured in the French Gazette du Bon Ton, the intricate illustration is titled ‘In the Moonlight’. Typically, it is said that the moon illuminates the black of the night, yet here, it is purple that takes over the image. Offering an alternative to black – a colour often avoided by painters – purple creates a similar, nighttime effect while simultaneously allowing for a gradation of tones. The dark purple moon, the pink-tinged leaves and pale purple cloak – all come together to create a mystery of the unknown. The slightly seductive stance of the lady lends this illustration a further aura of wonder.
GEORGE LEPAPE, cover of 'VANITY FAIR' (December 1919)
Created six years after the image from Gazette du Bon Ton, this Vanity Fair cover makes use of purple both in the fashions and the characters it portrays. Two (supposed) lovers are portrayed lighting each other’s cigarettes. Their pale purple complexions conjure vampiric images in the viewer’s mind, with their sleek and slender demeanors further exemplifying this similarity. Much like before, here too purple is used as the colour of night. It places the scene within the evening, despite the cream background of the magazine cover. The hue also offers a feminine alternative to black and differentiates the woman from her male partner, who wears a classic black jacket and holds a matching top hat.
GEORGE LEPAPE, cover of 'VOGUE US' (March 1927)
A striking purple cloche hat, adorned with a piece of silver jewelry, is the focal point of this 1927 Vogue magazine cover illustration. The female subject, representative of a typical flapper girl, stands proudly in the foreground while the lights of tall skyscrapers glimmer behind her in the black of night. A purple border frames the image, creating the illusion that she is looking into an appealing shop-window display. The sub-title, ‘Spring Shopping Number’, reaffirms such a reading. The purple hat beautifully highlights her blue-grey eyes and portrays how such a vibrant tone can be used to inject interest and energy into an otherwise monochrome look.
GEORGE van HOUTEN 'PORTRAIT of a LADY in PURPLE' (1953)
Though a simple portrait, Georges van Houten’s painting of a lady dressed in purple portrays the power of this vibrant tone. Her matching scarf, in a slightly lighter shade, offers an elegant accessory and gives the oversized silhouette of the coat an air of lightness and elegance – especially when paired with her carefully curled hair and pink-flushed cheeks. Although powerful, the full purple look shows that the colour does not have to overshadow the wearer.
DITA van TEESE wearing a purple wedding dress (2005)
For her 2005 wedding to Marilyn Manson, Dita von Teese wore a custom gown by the queen of punk, Vivienne Westwood. Made from seventeen meters of Swiss silk faille in a colour referred to as ‘shot violet’, the dress was undoubtedly an extravagant and unconventional choice for a wedding celebration. Dita wore the dress with a tri-corner hat designed for her by Philip Treacy, alongside a custom corset made by renowned creator, Mr Pearl, with heels by Christian Louboutin. The overall look has become iconic, the dress even being featured in museum exhibitions. For somebody with such a unique sense of style, the purple wedding dress was a natural choice for Dita von Teese and is definitely something worth trying if, like her, you have an abundance of original style and enjoy challenging people’s expectations!