A history of colour

From royal purple to baby blue, colours have been ascribed social meanings for thousands of years. Here, Gavin Evans, author of new book The Story of Colour: An Exploration of the Hidden Messages of the Spectrum, explains the intriguing background of seven different colours…

A baby wearing the colour pink. In the 19th-century and early 20th century, pare
A baby wearing the colour pink. In the 19th-century and early 20th century, parents were often advised to use pink for a boy and blue for a girl. (Constance Bannister Corp/Getty Images)

 

We tend to think of the meanings of colour in fixed terms: red for anger, yellow for cowardice, pink for girls and so on. But when we look at different colours from a historical perspective, it turns out that their meanings are culturally contingent – changing depending on place and time. 

 

Pink

We may think of pink as an innately feminine colour, but this is a fairly recent development. In fact, the tendency during the 19th and early 20th century was quite the opposite, and parents were often advised to use pink for a boy and blue for a girl. In 1897, for example, The New York Times published an article entitled ‘Baby’s First Wardrobe’, which advised parents that “pink is the colour for a boy and blue for a girl”. Two decades later, in 1918, the British Ladies’ Home Journal expressed the same sentiment, writing: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for a boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” 

At this period, pink was considered a little boy’s version of masculine red, while blue had feminine connotations because of the Virgin Mary’s cloak (which had been portrayed in that colour since the sixth century AD). It was only in the 1950s – partly through the influence of the Color Association of America [a colour trend forecaster and consulting service to the business community] – that pink was promoted as an unambiguously feminine colour. Car manufacturer Dodge launched its 1955 pink and white ‘La Femme’ model (complete with lipstick holder and complementary pink umbrella) with the slogan ‘never a car more distinctly feminine’, while Elizabeth Arden used ‘Pink is for Girls’ to market their cosmetics. 

 

Red

The colour red is persistently associated with defiance, the political left, and the blood of revolution. This may go back to the Middle Ages, when fighting ships used red streamer flags to suggest a fight to the death, but the first link to protest came about in 1293, when English pirates raised a red streamer after disputing the crown’s right to share their bounty. From then, the colour continued to be used periodically, but really came of age during the French Revolution, when the Jacobins political group raised a red flag to commemorate their martyrs’ blood and the colour became their official emblem. After that, the appeal of the colour spread rapidly, and when British sailors rebelled during the Spithead and Nore mutinies in 1797, they hoisted red flags. 

Later, red was used as a symbol of worker power during the Merthyr Rising in 1831, when marching Welsh strikers soaked flags in calves’ blood. Its defiant appeal soon crossed the ocean where, in 1836, it was used by Mexicans during their siege of the Alamo. The banners of Paris Commune in 1871 were red, consolidating its reputation as the colour of the left, and it was later adopted as the colour for the flag of the Soviet Union, communist China and – from 1906 – the British Labour party. Even today the Labour party continues to sing The Red Flag [a socialist song written in 1889] at party conferences, although in 1986 they shied away from the flag’s communist connotations and adopted the red rose as their official party emblem. 

The Paris Commune was established when the citizens of Paris, many of them armed National Guards, rebelled against the policies of the conservative government formed after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. (Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
 

Blue 

Religion, or, more accurately, xenophobia, is the source of the term ‘blue-blooded’ for anyone with aristocratic pretensions. Until 1492 Jews, Muslims and Christians rubbed along just fine (most of the time) in Muslim-ruled Spanish Granada. Then came the Christian monarchs’ orders for the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, which followed the Inquisition, which meant that the victims were faced with a terrible dilemma: flee or convert. 

Those who stayed were mainly darker-skinned people of North African descent, while their new overlords were lighter-skinned, which meant their blue veins could be seen in their necks and arms. One way of proving your Christian overlord credentials (and, later, that your forebears had never married a Moor or a Jew) was to show your 'sangre azul' (‘blue blood’). Other class-obsessed Europeans soon picked up on the trend, referring to those with aristocratic links as ‘blue bloods’, in reference to their supposed nobility. The term also reached the United States, where ‘blue-blooded Americans’ were those claiming noble, privileged ancestry. 

 

Orange

Every year during Northern Ireland’s ‘marching season’, a period of events from April to August, bowler-hatted Northern Ireland loyalists don orange sashes and hold aloft orange banners to assert their Protestant identity. The Orange Order was founded in 1795 – its name a tribute to William of Orange, the Dutchman who secured the ascendancy of Irish Protestants by winning the battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The reason for the orange association stretches back to 36 BC, when the Romans established the colony of Arausio [modern day Orange] in Provence, France. Arausio became linguistically associated with the word orange, becoming part of the Ancient Diocese of Orange [a district belonging to the Papacy] at the end of the third century. It retained the orange association over the centuries, and eventually the Dutch-German dynasty acquired the area. In 1544, after a Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, their prince became William I of Orange. Later, William lll became the first and only Orange king of England, Scotland and Ireland. 

On July 12 every year, members of the Orange Order march together to mark the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the protestant King William of Orange defeated the catholic King James II on the banks of the river Boyne. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

 

Yellow

The yellow ribbon has two notable connotations: one of defiance, and as a symbol of absent soldiers or lovers. The first meaning was first seen in Kansas in 1867, when suffragettes chose the colour of the state flower – the sunflower – for their ribbons. The latter meaning was created from the song She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which was brought to America by English settlers and was about waiting for a loved one to return. A version of the song became the official anthem of the US cavalry in 1917, and yellow ribbons were later used as a sign of commitment to sweethearts fighting abroad. 

Later, the two meanings blended into one through the popularity of the 1973 Tony Orlando and Dawn song, Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree. In 1983, supporters of the former Filipino politician Benigno Aquino Jr [a long-time political opponent of then-President Ferdinand Marcos] tied yellow ribbons around trees and played the song to welcome him home [from his self-imposed exile in the United States]. He was assassinated, prompting the People’s Power revolution [a movement to oust President Marcos], which used yellow as their campaign colour. Yellow ribbons were also used in protests in South Africa, Hong Kong and Australia. 

Former Phillipines President Corazon Aquino sprinkles holy water on the tomb of her assassinated husband, Benigno Aquino Jr in August 21, 2008. Benigno Aquino was under the custody of soldiers upon arrival from exile at Manila airport when he was killed by a gunman on August 21, 1983. (ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Green

Most religions have a soft spot for green, but none more so than Islam. It is associated with creation, the garden of Eden, paradise, resurrection and the prophet Muhammad himself, who was said to wear a green turban (also worn by his successors). The green associations of paradise in the Qur’an are more specific and detailed than in other religions, with mentions of green robes, green silk couches, and the green eternal garden— where Allah welcomes martyred souls, who fly his way in the form of green birds. 

A key Islamic figure is the wise and righteous al-Khidr, who is portrayed as wearing a green cloak and turban. Muhammad tells his companions that the reason al-Khidr is known as ‘the green one’ is because when he sits on barren ground, green shoots appear: in other words, he brings life. 

 

Purple

One reason purple became the colour for royalty was that it was prohibitively expensive. A Phoenician recipe for Tyrian purple, dated 1600 BC, involved crushing the glands of murex sea snails: 12,000 were required to make a single gram of the stuff. The fluid was mixed with wood, ash and urine and fermented. Cleopatra used purple for the sails of her barge, her sofas and drapes, which impressed Julius Caesar who decided that henceforth it would be an exclusively royal colour – a practice maintained under the emperors (Nero banned purple for anyone but himself, on pain of death). This tradition survived throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance as part of the sumptuary laws that placed restrictions on colours according to class, status and gender – just one of the ways hierarches were reinforced. 

A coloured plate showing King George VI in coronation robes, c1937. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

Later, in the Elizabethan era, only the queen and her relations could wear purple, while commoners were restricted mainly to earthy colours. The sumptuary laws were repealed or fell into disuse by the end of the 17th century, but pricey purple was still confined to aristocrats and wealthy notables. This all changed in 1857 when 18-year-old chemistry student William Henry Perkin discovered how to produce synthetic purple dye by combining coal tar with aniline. He patented it, called it ‘mauveine’ and it was soon mass produced – prompting a craze that Punch magazine called “the mauve measles”.

Gavin Evans is a senior lecturer at the London School of Journalism. His book The Story of Colour: An Exploration of the Hidden Messages of the Spectrum is out now in hardback, published by Michael O’Mara.

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