The Meanings of Purple
Purple’s rarity in nature and the expense of creating the color and has given purple a supernatural aura for centuries. Purple is also the most powerful wavelength of the rainbow – and it’s a color with a powerful history that has evolved over time. In fact, the origins of the symbolism of purple are more significant and interesting than those of any other color.
If we go back to our pre-historic existence, our ancestors probably never saw a purple fruit, flower, bird, fish - or any living thing - because purple is very rare in nature. This is hard to imagine in today’s connected world.
As civilizations developed, so did clothing and colored dyes. The earliest purple dyes date back to about 1900 B.C. It took some 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5 grams of the pure dye - barely enough for dying a single garment the size of the Roman toga. It’s no wonder then, that this color was used primarily for garments of the emperors or privileged individuals.
Over the course of history, purple pigments and dyes became less costly and complex, but one thing has remained the same: Purple symbolizes nobility and luxury to most people in the world.
Today, science has revealed much more about purple than our ancestors ever realized: Purple is the most powerful visible wavelength of electromagnetic energy. It’s just a few steps away from x-rays and gamma rays. (See the chart here.) Perhaps this explains why purple is associated with supernatural energy and the cosmos than with the physical world as we know it.
Taking all aspects of purple’s past and present into consideration, purple symbolizes magic, mystery, spirituality, the sub-conscious, creativity, dignity, royalty – and it evokes all of these meanings more so than any other color.
Variations of purple convey different meanings: Light purples are light-hearted, floral, and romantic. The dark shades are more intellectual and dignified.
The negative meanings of purple are decadence, conceit, and pomposity. Purple is also a color of mourning.
One of the most significant aspects of purple’s symbolism is the generational divide. There’s a huge difference of opinions about purple. It all depends on age.
Most young people view purple as a happy color. No baggage. Older adults view the color through a broader perspective. Furthermore, purple takes on new meanings in many cultures.
Global Meanings of Purple
Purple's global similarities are significant:
Purple tends to be a color that people either love or hate.
Among Mediterranean people, purple was reserved for emperors and popes. The Japanese christened it “Imperial Purple”
Purple is the color of mourning or death in many cultures (U.K., Italy, Thailand, Brazil)
Purple is not a common flag color. Only two flags contain purple.
Unique Meanings of Purple in Different Cultures
The “Purple Heart” is the American award for bravery.
Purple is a symbolic color for the gay community in many Western cultures.
Purple is the color of popular children's television characters – "Barney" and "Tinky Winky" (the purple Teletubby from the BBC).
In Italy most performing artists would not go on stage if they have to wear anything purple.
Online learning from the author of Color Matters
Designing with Purple
The opposites of hot red and cool blue combine to create this intriguing color.
There are three distinct purples: Red-Purple, Purple, Blue-Purple. Red-purples are warm, blue-purples are cool, and pure purple is neutral.
How Purple Affects Vision
Purple is the hardest color for the eye to discriminate.
Have some fun!: You won't believe your eyes: Watch the Lilac Chaser
Myths about the Effects of Purple on the Body
Purples have been used in the care of mental of nervous disorders because they have shown to help balance the mind and transform obsessions and fears.
Most psychologists view these claims with skepticism. No valid studies have been conducted to confirm them.
Tidbits – Points to Ponder
Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Augustus both decreed that only the Emperor could wear purple. When Nero became Emperor, the wearing of purple and even the sale of purple was punishable by death!
Wagner composed his greatest works in a room with purple draperies.
More about purple
One of the most powerful examples of purple is the "Purple Pill."
See "Taking the Color of Medications Seriously."
Explore the meanings of more colors!
Is purple right for your logo & brand?
Trustworthy color formulas for logos and branding
An eCourse from Jill Morton, Color Matters author & consultant.
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More from Color Matters
There's much more to purple than what meets the eye. Learn the messages and meanings of color in this e-course from Color Matters.