Every color provokes a feeling, whether connected to a childhood memory or just an abstract tweak at that little part in the brain that feels calm when surrounded by pale green, or mildly aggravated by a particular shade of orange. But what of purple? Cool blue muddled with the warmth of red creates a mysterious shade belonging to mulberries, blackberries and concord grapes, as well as kings, celebrants of certain religious ceremonies, devotees of the seventh chakra and experimenters and eccentrics worldwide.
It is a color that claims no precise place in the rainbow, is often associated with gay pride [which claims the rainbow as a symbol], and was one of the most infamous dyes in ancient times. Tiny Murex mollusks gave up their lives for Tyrian royal purple, their shells crushed so that mucus could be extracted from their hypobranchial gland and infused into cloth. Because only the wealthy and powerful could afford shellfish-dyed clothing, the color has long been linked to notions of high status and rarified luxury.
Owing to this perhaps, purple prose is a phrase used to describe an extravagantly descriptive language. But purple’s associations go further. In the smoky, psychedelic Sixties, purple haze was the affectionate term for the after-affects of a hash brownie or two – a snack most likely tried by the band Deep Purple before choosing their name. In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, a 1980s museum devoted to the great Jimmie Hendrix was painted in the color most descriptive of his flamboyant guitar playing.
Does purple’s double occurrence of the letter P symbolize multiple personalities and properties? Perhaps this explains why the color is mostly avoided in mainstream culture today. I for one have suddenly suspected that a person I know quite well, a man whose better half is a charming lass, might bat for more than one team upon discovering a set of purple leather chairs with matching pouffe in his studio. Yet having said this, any shade of heather, or the mere whiff of lavender, instantly puts me on the road to a retirement village. It’s hard to pin purple down.
Purple has been arguably more resonant in symbolic terms than any other color throughout history. A Byzantine empress’ baby boy, delivered into her purple chamber, was born to the purple, meaning that he would become emperor whether he would become a gallant hero or a slovenly coward.
But other cultures consider purple to be a shade of mourning and death. In the U.S. military, for example, the oldest honor is the Purple Heart, given to servicemen wounded in the line of duty. In darker times the mustached tyrant of the Third Reich labeled interned Jehovah’s witnesses (Bibelforscher) with a purple triangle. In Catholic rites, purple serves as a reminder of the Easter trials of Jesus.
Purple adds unsettling nuance to films, poetry and music in a myriad of ways. Neil Young sings purple words on a grey background in Cowgirl In The Sand. The narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven inhabits a purple chamber. The artist once again known as Prince brought us Purple Rain. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith maintained stiff cinematic upper lips in Ladies in Lavender. But no purple moving picture is more memorable than The Color Purple, a tale of African-American sisters whose stories are painted with suffering and eggplant shaded bruises. The author of the book, Alice Walker, said “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” giving us a hint of the depth she finds in the color.
Perhaps today’s society shows signs of porphyophobia exactly because of purple’s polyvalent signs and symbols of suffering and emotion. But it may be exactly purple’s sympathies and compassions that our world needs to address its current ills. Perhaps the time is ripe to reconcile ourselves to purple’s many powers and bravely don our thigh-high aubergine wellingtons, slap our mauve berets, pull on our blackberry mittens and say “to hell with it, I may or may not be gay, I may or may not be in a haze, I may or may not be in mourning, my life may or may not be what I wish it was…but I just like purple.”