Following the recent passing of purple’s most high-profile advocate in the modern era, we decided to take a look at the history of purple, a complex and hard-to-define colour. Purple is the hardest colour for the eye to discriminate – it is the most refracted colour when light passes through a prism, putting it at the far end of the visible colour spectrum. And it also escapes some of the easy description of some other colours – red is hot, blue is cool… but what is the quality of purple, exactly…?
One of the most obvious associations for purple is with royalty, but that in itself comes comes from rather surprising origins. Its product was for centuries a rather, erm, slimy affair. The first purple, known as Tyrian Purple, was made from the mucous of sea snails. It required vast quantities of snails to create the smallest amounts of dye – up to 250,000 snails produced just one ounce. Even worse, the vats used to produce it had to be situated on the outskirts of Tyre (in what is today Lebanon) due to the dreadful smell that the process produced.
The fact that purple could for centuries only be produced from natural materials made it labour-intensive to produce and therefore highly expensive – at one point literally worth its weight in gold. As a result it became linked to royalty and power. Supposedly Julius Caesar was so taken with the purple visible in the court of Cleopatra when he visited that on his return he had a purple toga made for him – and decreed that no-one else should wear purple except for himself. In the court of Henry VIII the Earl of Surrey was accused of high treason, with his wearing of the ‘king’s colour’ used as evidence of his disloyal plotting. It was not just the expense of early purple however, but also the associations of its appearance too. Pliny the Elder described purple as the colour of clotted blood and thought that “it brightens every garment, and shares with gold the glory of the triumph.” The blood tones therefore would have alluded to both victory in war and a notion of divine governance similar to the phrase ‘blue blood’ today.
It wasn’t until 1856 that a teenaged student at the Royal College of Chemistry stumbled upon a method of creating purple synthetically. Eighteen-year old William Henry Perkin had been attempting to make quinine in his bedroom by adding hydrogen and oxygen to coal tar. The black residue when left behind was no use either for treating malaria or mixing in your gin and tonic (quinine having been used for both these purposes) but did dilute down into a purple dye – a colour he eventually named as mauve. When Queen Victoria wore a gown to the Royal Exhibition in 1862 dyed with this new product the colour was once again immediately in fashion – Perkins opened a factory to produce the dye, and the industrial age of fashion dyes was born.
Once anyone could afford purple clothes the status of purple was to some extent diminished, however from the pre-Raphaelite painters onwards it came to embody a kind of romantic sensuality and femininity – interesting that the movement for Women’s Suffrage used it for their sashes. One of the nation’s best-loved poems is Warning by Jenny Joseph. A poem about being a woman, and refusal to conform to society’s demands, it is better known for its first line: “When I am an old woman I will wear purple…” Have you noticed how often the nonogenarian style icon Iris Apfel is photographed in purple?
The anti-establishment, bohemian associations for purple continue to this day, visible in cultural touchstones from Hendricks’ trippy, psychedelic anthem Purple Haze to the costumes and lyrics of the late, great sensualist and embodiment of a sexual, feminised masculinity, the artist Prince.