Examining the Cultural Significance of Purple

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Illustration by Chrissie Abbott

From Prince’s enduring fascination with the hue, to a group of radical activists named The Lavender Menace, Ana Kinsella considers the cultural overtones of one of the spectrum's most conflicting shades

TextAna KinsellaPhotographic EditorHolly HayIllustrationChrissie Abbott

If ever there was an argument against innate ideas, purple might be it. Never has a colour held such differing, even opposing connotations across cultures and centuries, which might make writing this column a little trickier than usual. We could start at the beginning, or close to it, with the honorific title Porphyrogenitus, translating as ‘born in the purple’, given to those privileged babies born to a man after he had become an emperor in the Byzantine empire. Since Roman times purple has often been used as the colour for royal and ceremonial robes, in part due to the cost of Tyrian purple, the bright, punchy and expensive dye derived from sea snails. Their use in the Byzantine empire was restricted by law.

Sooner or later, the laws expired, and purple became more widely available. Today the colour has something of a Marmite effect – you either love it, and are probably reading this while sitting on a purple sofa, or with a lavender wash in your highlights – or else it seems too wacky, too eccentric for your consumption. Of all the purples, perhaps lavender has the most resonance – even a purple-hater can’t help but be moved by the otherworldly wavering of a field of lavender. Often thought of as the colour of calm, lavender is not without a cultural power, either. Think of the Lavender Menace, a New York faction of radical activists who protested the National Organisation of Women’s exclusion of lesbians during the late 1960s. Their name, first given to them by Betty Friedan who claimed they were a threat, takes the colour most associated with LGBT issues at the time and puts it to work as a reactive force for progress. By 1971, NOW had stopped its expulsion of lesbian members and had brought gay rights fully onto their agenda for women’s equality.

In Art
Working with purple’s more illusory qualities, Alex Katz’s painting Purple Wind uses the colour to capture the loneliness and isolation of life in the city. Elsewhere, his wife and frequent model Ada is often depicted wearing purple, or against soft mauve tones, in a way that suggests the haze of memory and a nostalgia for moments that have long since passed. This is seen again in Dexter Dalwood’s Neverland, an eerie still life imagining Michael Jackson’s home, where a rich purple carpet fills the silent bedroom.

In Fashion
Considering its love-it-or-hate-it quality, to embrace purple in fashion can imply a willful refusal to conform to norms of taste. On the runway, purple often indicates, as in Prada or Miu Miu, a nod to the 1960s or 70s. Of course, the colour has also literally featured on Prada’s runway, for Spring/Summer 2015, when purple sand dunes lay heaped along the catwalk, lending a pensive surrealism like something from a childhood dream.

In advertising, purple is a well-loved choice for perfume, often in wild wisps that seem to signify scent on the page. See YSL’s ads for its scents Parisienne, Manifesto and in particular Opium in the 1980s, featuring Linda Evangelista lounging on a soft purple sheet or Jerry Hall in purple silk trousers.

In Film
In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, and its film adaptation by Steven Spielberg, purple stands in for love, energy and happiness in a joyless world. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field and don’t notice it,” says Shug Avery to protagonist Celie as they walk through a meadow of flowers. It’s the first time Celie really observes the world around her, and Shug’s encouragement to joy changes her.

Elsewhere, wearing purple can be a marker of eccentricity in a character on screen. To look at Willy Wonka’s purple velvet jacket, or at Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight you’d think that no sane, normal man would dare to wear such a colour. Sartorially, it’s reserved for the most outlandish of outsiders.

In Music 
Prince’s sonic stake on purple is dominant, beginning with the film, song and album sharing the name, and stretching throughout his lengthy career. For Prince it is not just a symbol of royalty, but a kind of redemptory self-actualisation, a way for him to define himself as a singular and incomparable being.

Soft glowing lavender pops up again in Drake’s James Turrell-inspired Hotline Bling video, where he dances bathed in light that pulsates from gold to green to pink. But it’s Drake and his dancers silhouetted against that mauve backdrop that provides the most iconic image. The colour’s cool resonance echoes the tonal shift in his sound that Hotline Bling represented: for all its aloof bravado, its wacky showiness, there’s melancholic loneliness underneath.