Purple is a captivating colour. It is the colour at the far end of the visible spectrum, and as a dye it was exceptionally costly to produce. As a result, purple’s mystery and opulence has fascinated society since its emergence in antiquity. Its charm and influence has spanned both high society and popular culture, from magic to royalty and psychedelia.
Discover a world of power and glamour with this enchanting colour.
Royals and rulers
Tyrian Purple was associated with the rank of royalty in the ancient civilisations of Rome, Japan, Persia, Egypt and Constantinople, dating back as far as the 16th century BC. But how did it come to be the stamp of everything imperial? For a start, purple was first sourced in Phoenicia (the name translates as ‘purple land’), an ancient city located in modern-day Lebanon. Producing purple dye was a laborious process – and was subsequently expensive – though the method of extracting it was less glamorous. The dye stemmed from the foul-smelling mucous gland of a marine mollusk. As a result, the term purple owes itself to the Latin word for a purple shellfish, ‘purpura’. A time-consuming process saw these sea snails dried and boiled to make Tyrian dye – many of the creatures were needed to dye even a small segment of fabric, but the benefits meant that the intensity of the colour was long-lasting and not prone to fade.
Deemed decadent and valuable, purple was thereby reserved only for the elite, including rulers, high-ranking religious clergy and those of royal rank. In Ancient Greece, for example, legislation stated that the higher your status, the more right you had to wear purple. In Rome, purple had connections with Julius Caesar, who famously sported a purple toga, while wealthy men of a noble class known as the ‘equites’ were permitted to wear robes with a Tyrian Purple stripe. By the Imperial Roman era only the emperor was given permission to wear purple, and those who failed to adhere to the rules, even by imitation, were punished. These social cues continued well into the Byzantine Empire. Empresses would give birth in a room called a ‘porphyry’, a prized purple stone chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. Their children were therefore ‘born to the purple’, coining the phrase that now refers to anyone born of high and noble birth. During later periods, purple held the same power: in Elizabethan Europe purple was reserved for royalty, and throughout England’s Tudor period only King Henry VIII was allowed to dress in the colour; he went as far as committing an Earl to death by treason for wearing it.
A happy accident with mauve
It was many years later when a synthetic purple dye was created by way of a serendipitous accident. In 1856 an 18-year-old English chemist, William Henry Perkins, mistakenly invented Perkin’s Purple, or the shade we recognise today as mauveine or mauve, which altered purple’s close relationship with all things superior. Perkins was at the time trying to find a cure for malaria by attempting to synthesize quinine in a laboratory. When cleaning up the solution he’d created with alcohol, he noticed he’d produced a dark purple liquid. This shade would go on to make him a fortune and revolutionise the world of fashion. The synthetic dye was far cheaper to produce than Tyrian, and therefore the production of mauve garments became widespread, particularly throughout London and Paris – showcased by Queen Victoria when she wore a Perkin’s Mauve gown to London’s Royal Exhibition of 1862.
Femininity and youth on canvas
Purple was a popular addition to the palettes of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Sir John Everett Millais and Arthur Hughes, and often made from mixing cobalt blue with madder. Fairer shades of purple came to represent youthfulness and innocence. This can be seen in the dresses worn by the young woman featured in Arthur Hughes’ April Love (1855–6) or the eponymous young girl in Millais’ The Woodsman’s Daughter (1851). During the Impressionist era, the phrase ‘violettomania’ was bounced about. It represented the fervour of artists who had a fashion for embellishing canvasses with a violet tinting, such as Monet, who preferred to use violet over black to better portray light and shade.
In the early 20th century, Gustav Klimt favoured the use of purple in his symbolist pieces. The Virgin – his dreamlike 1913 piece, depicts a young girl sleeping peacefully amidst a blanket of whirls and floral patterns as an ode to youthful femininity. Later still, the Pop Art movement would see a passion for neon purple in Ultraviolet. Artist Isabelle Collin Dufresne did so quite literally, in changing her professional name to Ultra Violet, and dressing herself in the colour, from her hair to her makeup.
Magic and psychedelia in popular culture
Ultraviolet continued to be a prevalent colour within the music world of the late 20th century, particularly that of surrealism surrounding the psychedelic drug culture of the 1960s and 70s. It featured in the kaleidoscopic motifs and lyrics of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s single, Purple Haze – popularly believed to describe a hallucinogenic experience. It was also the chosen shade of costumes, album artwork and stage sets for various unconventional, individualist singer-songwriters, from Prince’s ultraviolet branding following his ‘Purple Rain’ release, to David Bowie, making purple a colour that was symbolic of countercultural movements and expressions of originality.
Magic and mysticism
On a different cultural wavelength, purple is frequently associated with spiritual insight and the art of magic. In the Feng Shui belief, purple is believed to bring opportunity and inspiration into the space of the home. Because of the colour’s high frequency, it’s believed to have a strong spiritual force, and therefore followers of Feng Shui use it only in moderation. Purple is also used in pagan and Wicca rituals, often used in the form of purple ribbons. As a result, purple has links with witchcraft and wizardry – the latter made famous more recently with the Harry Potter books and film series. Author J.K. Rowling has stated that, throughout her novels, she associated purple with noble magic. It’s the colour of the Night Bus, a safety vehicle that assists stranded witches or wizards, and Professor Dumbledore’s cloak, an emblem befitting a character who is a force for good.
Ever since its arrival, purple has been the colour given to mystery and wonder. Whether it represents magical or surreal experiences, a blue-blooded lineage or the nostalgia of youth, purple is a force that has the capacity to reach into the other-worldly; a force that is always, to a typical human experience, just that little bit out of reach.
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