Purple is a rich colour: deep and mesmerising. It’s apt, then, that a colour of such visual depth is honoured around the world through an equally rich collection of meanings and histories. From ancient Rome to modern day Rio, purple’s significance spans many eras and cultures, with the similarities in perception only adding to its allure...
COLOUR OF MAGIC AND ROYALTY
Purple has long been associated with sovereignty and power: in a tradition first introduced by Julius Caesar, Roman Emperors were the only people in the empire allowed to wear a purple toga, known as the ‘trabea’. This tradition is said to have begun after one of Caesar’s visits to Egypt where he spent time in Cleopatra’s living quarters, an opulent space featuring furniture and tapestries made of luxurious purple fabrics. In modern culture, this connection between purple and royalty has been solidified through the iconic imagery associated with the late musician, Prince, who built much of his persona around the colour. It featured prominently in his styling choices, music, and stage lighting, as well as his music, naming one of his songs after the colour – Purple Rain. Inextricably linked to its regal lineage, purple is also associated with wealth, decadence, wisdom, and devotion in many countries around the world. Deep shades of purple are considered to represent magic, mystery, and spirituality, thought by some to be due to purple’s position at the top end of the visible light spectrum, aligning the colour with ‘higher realms’. Other concepts associated with purple – such as creativity, wisdom, ambition, and independence – tie in with its magical and royal attributes, further confirming its status as a strong, exceptional colour.
FEMININE PURPLE, MASCULINE PURPLE
Different hues of purple are seen to have different meanings and, though it’s not uncommon for contrasting tones to take on distinct meanings, the way different shades of purple are seen to represent masculine and feminine qualities makes it unique. Light purple, or lavender, is associated with femininity and delicacy, and has a romantic, elegant quality that some believe makes it a more mature version of pastel pink. Though light shades of purple are often associated with feminine light pinks, brighter shades of purple are seen to be gender ambiguous, adopted by the LGBTQ+ community as a symbol of androgyny. Traditionally, feminine pink and masculine blue can be mixed to create purple tones, and it’s this containment of both extremes of the gender binary that leads some to consider purple as the colour of androgyny. Whilst light shades of purple are often used to denote femininity, and bright shades to symbolise androgyny, darker, more regal shades are seen to be masculine, meaning purple – in its many contrasting forms – has the potential to represent gender as an entire spectrum.
PURPLE AROUND THE WORLD
Fascinatingly, both royal and spiritual significance is assigned to purple in many countries around the world. In Japan, purple robes were historically reserved for only the highest-ranking Buddhist monks, and in the Ashanti culture – which originated in modern day Ghana – purple is associated with mother earth and healing. Across the African continent, purple fabrics and garments have long been popular choices; seen as a symbol of royalty and wealth, it is often worn to bring good luck. From the spiritual ceremonies of the Ashanti and Egyptian people, to the American military’s ‘Purple Heart’ award, purple is used to signify the exceptional. While the methods may appear vastly different on the surface, they are in fact each underpinned by many of the same sentiments, including honour, extravagance, and wisdom. In countries like Brazil, Thailand, and Italy, purple is associated with death and is used in times of mourning. This use of purple as a way of honouring the dead ties many of purple’s key meanings together, particularly its connections to ceremony, respect, and spirituality – who knows, maybe there is something to that ‘higher realms’ stuff after all...