Purple is a color that sets its wearer apart. Somehow purple signals eccentricity, royalty, bereavement, independence, radicalism, violence and even tortured prose. Purple was also the first synthetically created color, and its curious history is matched by its cultural currency.
In the ancient world, purple, like salt, was a top-shelf product. On the Tyrian shores in Phoenicia, “land of purple,” dyemakers used salt to extract a purple ink from the glands of a carnivorous mollusk. Myth holds that Hercules discovered the dye when his dog’s teeth were stained deep purple from munching on the gastropods. It took some 12,000 mollusks to produce one and a half grams of Tyrian purple, laboriously harvested by those who neither wore the color nor tasted the salt. The expense was a pride and a burden to the powerful. Rome’s rulers codified the privilege of wearing purple, and Julius Caesar made it his household color. Emperor Aurelian, however, 45 rulers later, denied his wife a purple garment after learning the price.
Purple still reigns in certain royal circles. The motto of the Sacramento Kings basketball team is “Rock the Purple.” Prince, called “the Purple One” for his signature wardrobe color, embraces an iconic regality: He is “His Royal Badness” and “the Prince of Funk.” In the title song from his number-one 1984 album Purple Rain, he cries, “I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain”—can it be a pun on “reign”?
In Ars Poetica (18 B.C.), his treatise on the art of poetry, the Roman poet Horace criticizes exaggerated passages that stand out jarringly from the surrounding text as “purple patches,” the color associated with lavish imperial excess. The phrase purple prose arose to describe any language gilded and glittered and jeweled beyond beautiful and into the territory of shark bait. While many writers try to whittle their purple away, leaving lean, mean Hemingway lines, a few iconoclasts relish the ornate style. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest—named after the penman of the well-known opening sentence “It was a dark and stormy night”—annually rewards the most tasteless and gaudiest writing.
Sex is a specialized field in purple prose. Out of embarrassment, uncertainty or tradition, authors instinctively fall into purple when writing about it. Consider “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin, he screwed himself into her.” Novelist Rowan Somerville won the Literary Review’s 2010 Bad Sex in Fiction Award after inking this misguided sentence for his book The Shape of Her. He joined the prestigious ranks of best-selling winners Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and John Updike (the recipient of the contest’s first lifetime achievement award).
In 1856 William Perkin, an 18-year-old chemistry student, just wanted to cure malaria. Instead he accidentally created mauveine, which became the first mass-produced artificial dye. There’s much to admire about mauve, a pale violet color, which could be called the affordable purple, a corrective to its costly Tyrian counterpart. Mauve became associated with royalty when Queen Victoria wore it on special occasions (even during the four-decade-long mourning period she observed after the death of her husband, Prince Albert), and for a brief time anyone could wear the color of queens. But cheap artificial dyes—indigos, yellows, greens and reds—became all the rage, and mauve’s majesty vanished. Sporadically popular in the 20th century, mauve is now largely a chromatic outcast. American painter and dandy James Whistler is reputed to have rather cruelly remarked, “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple.” Thomas Beer, an American author popular in the interwar years, titled his work on the death of the Gilded Age The Mauve Decade, and during the O.J. Simpson trial, when questioned about a questionable bluish suit, defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran said, “Just don’t call it mauve.” Still, mauve was the last truly regal shade.
“Of lavender, my nature’s got just a dash in it,” sang Cole Porter in 1929. Lavender was just starting its career in slang as a marker for homosexuality. Depending on the speaker, “lavender” could be playful admission, as with Porter, or scathing insult, as when Everett Dirksen, Illinois senator, swore the right votes would clean the State Department of “lavender lads” in 1952. Dirksen was a leader in the campaign known as the lavender scare, part of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. There was a strong belief at that time that communist agents could blackmail homosexuals into becoming spies. Prejudice continued into the age of Homintern, or the lavender conspiracy: The lads were allegedly back at it, infiltrating the worlds of art, fashion and culture in the 1960s to spread gay propaganda by influencing American tastes. Bespectacled novelist Truman Capote, at five foot three, was viewed as particularly dangerous.
Lavender’s image has since changed. Its palely flamboyant decadence makes it as much a fashion statement as a sexual one, inverting the chronology of mauve, which started as a mid-Victorian craze and evolved into a symbol of homosexual artists, such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, in the 1890s.
“Never trust a woman who wears mauve, whatever her age,” advises writer and wit Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. He could have been diagnosed with porphyrophobia, the fear of purple. In her enormously popular 1961 poem “Warning,” English poet Jenny Joseph defies Wilde, asserting, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” When Wilde wrote, near the turn of the 20th century, mauve had been a fashion fad for decades. In the 1860s, novelist Charles Dickens produced and edited a magazine called All the Year Round, which described the astonishing sight of London streets thronged with the mauve-attired. Now, if you wear a purple T-shirt you stand out, but to many a fashionista, if you don a mauve one you’re colorblind. So when Jenny Joseph warns about her purple future, she imagines a time when she can freely flaunt her eccentricities without regard to societal norms, without thinking about dinner parties she should hold and other obligations gray in tone: “I shall go out in my slippers in the rain / and pick the flowers in other people’s gardens / and learn to spit.”
Shakespeare often referred to wounds as being purple, the U.S. military awards the Purple Heart medal to wounded soldiers, and indeed, purple is the color of a bruise, lending itself naturally to metaphors for violence. Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple narrates the story of Celie, a black girl living in 1930s Georgia. She is repeatedly abused and raped by her stepfather, and describes another character’s beaten face as puffed and shaded like an eggplant. The 1984 film Purple Rain tells the story of the Kid (played by Prince), an aspiring singer with a violent, abusive father. In these instances, purple is far from a royal color; rather, it is a symbol of domestic violence stemming from poverty and oppression.
But purple also offers a type of solace to both characters. Celie lies in a field of purple flowers with Shug Avery, her lodestar companion, and admires a color of hope and beauty. In the song “When Doves Cry,” from Purple Rain, Prince sings, “Dream if you can a courtyard, an ocean of violets in bloom,” as his character edges away from the tyrannies of his alcoholic father toward an idyllic romance with Apollonia, his love interest.
Celie, the protagonist of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, spends her childhood in a brutal, male-dominated world. Abused by her stepfather and desperately poor, she is given away in marriage to a man known as Mr. _____.
Unsurprisingly, Celie and Mr. _____ are not a harmonious couple. Enter Shug Avery, a jazz singer and, soon, the main vertex of a love triangle. She is Mr. _____’s mistress, and Celie also quickly develops a crush on her. Lesbian subtext pervades The Color Purple, and as the two women build a sexual relationship, purple becomes a symbol of Celie’s love for Shug and her distancing from male subjugation. Celie’s epiphany occurs in a purple-flowered meadow with Shug at her side. Purple has been in the palette of lesbianism since around 600 B.C., when the Greek poet and famous lesbian Sappho and her lovers wore violet tiaras. In Sappho’s surviving poetic fragments, Eros, the god of sexual love, wears a purple cloak, and a female virgin is compared to a hyacinth crushed underfoot, “lying trampled on the earth / yet blooming purple.”
Virgil connects women to purple in the Aeneid (29–19 B.C.), his epic poem about the forefather of Rome’s founders. Lavinia, the Roman ideal of girlishness in the Aeneid, simply weeps and blushes, saying nothing, as her love and the story’s antagonist, Turnus, goes to war. Virgil describes her face as being violated—violaverit—with the flush of “bloody purple,” evoking both sexual and battlefield violence.
Two thousand years after lavender-cheeked Lavinia, American girls adore the color. Purple-painted rooms and purple sneakers and purple nail polish abound. But purple is no longer the symbol of feminine propriety, as when Lavinia blushed and cried and remained silent. Lavender may derive from the Latin for “to wash,” but purple-loving girls of today are not proclaiming their cleaning prowess. They’re making a different statement, flaunting their selfhood with the bold, popular color, proclaiming “no more silence or blushing.” The same can be said for homosexuals who use the eye-catching color to symbolize pride—in the purple fist of the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s and the violet stripe that anchors the LGBT-pride rainbow flag. The reminder of a violation of rights, purple remains non-violaverit, a proud symbol of the cause.