Banner for Tyrian Purple-Journey of the colour purple

The Journey of Purple: In Social Order and Social Change

The history and significance of purple in society.

Purple is a colour that has a long history in the social eye with many viewpoints. It has been used for social status for wealth to equality. Recently, purple has been used for feminism since the early days of fighting for women’s rights.

I have designed a few products for pro-women causes and I found that the colour purple is used often with slight different variances. It is a very easily recognizable colour for activism. Purple is seen as an older mature womanly colour in comparison to pink a fun youthful colour. For the understanding of the way the colour purple is being used, an understanding of the importance of purple in history is necessary.

Where did purple come from?

The first use of the colour purple historically was for the Royals back in the Roman Empire era. The purple they used came from snails. These snails are called Murex Brandaris. The colour came from the defence mechanism enzyme that the snails have to protect them from predators. The variations of purple ranged from pink to violet, noticeably a very rich magenta-purple. The purple was called Tyrian Purple.

Tyrian Purple swatch
The HEX code of Tyrian Purple is #66023C

This was named after the city of Tyre. The discovery was credited to the pet dog of Tyros, the mistress of Tyre’s patron god Melqart, who bit a snail washed up from the beach and stained his mouth purple. She demanded afterwards to have garments dyed that same colour.

Garment workers creating this colour in ancient times would set traps in the deep seas to catch the snails from floating cages. They extracted their glands that held the toxin then putrefied crushed shells to bake in the sun. After three days, the garment workers would add salt to mash into the glands. They were then boiled in tins. Wools were dipped into the vats repeatedly until the desired colour was reached. The wools were then weaved into garments. The newly stated textile industry was very lucrative for the city of Tyre. But only the royals of the land were the only ones to have clothes in this dye because the snails were so rare and expensive to produce. It was once worth more than gold to own a piece of cloth dipped in this dye. One pre-dyed wool would cost one pound of gold. The dye also made the fabric very durable, rarely faded and smelt awful in production.

Empress Theodora and attendants in the 6th century
Empress Theodora, (wife of Justinian 1) and attendants, 6th-century mosaic, from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.

This colour was used amongst the royals in Europe, Asia and Africa for centuries after the discovery of the colour purple. They would have been the only ones to afford the colour and they used it on robes and formal dresses. A Sumptuary Law was passed during this time about the colour purple, which means that no one not closely connected to the royal family can ever wear purple. Purple was regulated to wearers with high wealth and regal status to society. The Sumptuary Laws were about maintaining class distinction through material everyday items like clothes, foods and drink. These laws (especially the ones about having purple garments) lasted from the Egyptian times to the Elizabethan era. The Elizabethan colour coding law made it harder to wear a purple and other colours without offending the high socials in the 18th century.

The Mauve Decade

Half a century later, a cheaper and more accessible version of purple was going to be invented. In 1856, an English chemist named William Henry Perkin was trying to invent synthesize quinine, an anti-malaria drug. Quinine was used to treat malaria. He was adding hydrogen and oxygen to coal tar at his makeshift chemistry lab in England. The black murky residue was not synthesized quinine but synthetic purple. This made him very rich and famous because of the quick availability of a regal scarily available colour to the masses that were once blocked from owning. The colour was first called aniline purple and Tyrian purple then renamed mauve three years later after the French purple mallow flower.

The availability of purple created many movements. Many people were happy that they finally got to use this colour in daily life. People started to have this colour available to them from great technological developments from this time. It was widely used colour with mostly everyone. Between January 1st, 1890 to December 31st, 1899 was known as the Mauve Decade and the Gay Nineties. (Gay in the 1800’s meant happy.)

This decade was also apart of the Gilded Age when technological achievements like the car, the refrigerator, Linotype machines and the light bulb were invented during this time. The decade was filled with corruption, poverty, vulgar pretentious displays, rudeness and terrible ethics. The transformation in economic, social, technological and political change fabricated our modern times by community growth and standing up for the workplace and social rights with many strikes.

How does the Women’s movement use purple?

In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in the United Kingdom. They were advocating an extension of the franchise. They extended their crusade with getting the right for women to vote. At this time women did not have that much power in the household when it came to income, purchasing and general choice not just involving money. WSPU were a group that split from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies to pursue more of a militant role in getting politicians to listen to them.

In the woman’s suffragette movement, there were colours that were used to represent many sides of the cause. Purple means dignity, loyalty, purpose and valour. One of the intentions of the colours in the movement was to promote public awareness of suffrage. The colours were also feminine. This was to counteract from the men at the time, stand out from the crowd and highlight their femininity. They were also encouraged to dress in delicate fabrics (often in white) with the green and purple sashes during public demonstrations.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, editor of the weekly newspaper, Votes for Women, wrote, ‘Purple as everyone knows is the royal colour, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity…white stands for purity in private and public life…green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.’

The colours were first used in 1908. The leader of the WSPU daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst came up with memorabilia for movement. The painter designed buttons, banners, posters, flags, gifts, tea sets, badges and created its logo. This was the beginning of many marketing campaign efforts for women’s right in the U.K. When they protested, they wore ribbons as a mark of their outspoken political standing. The ribbon colours were purple, green and white.

The ribbon worn for the Women’s Suffrage Movement

In America the woman’s suffrage movement had it’s beginning in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention in New York to discuss the “discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” The document at the convention, Declaration of Sentiments, pressed for more resolutions for rights, privileges and obligations for women. After a long debate and a speech by supporter and orator, Fredrick Douglass, garnered support and the bill was passed. After a couple of years when the American Civil War brought an end to the National Women’s Rights Convention and started to work together to abolish slavery and emancipation, and they created the National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA). Then they joined forces with the American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA) after years always working side-by-side forming the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA.) This was an important step in getting women the right to vote.

Purple and white were the more universally used colours to the movement like the other colours, like green and gold. Green turned into gold after 1867 in Kansas. They were considering to pass a state suffrage referendum. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony adopted the state flower, sunflower, as a symbol of the suffrage cause.

After Susan B. Anthony retired and Elizabeth Cady Stanton moved on to other things, her daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch and Alice Paul ran the NAWSA. They both spent time overseas viewing the suffrage movement in the United Kingdom. They were influenced by the style of protest and marketing campaign.

The Suffragist, Vol. 1 No. 4, published on December 6, 1913, describes the symbolism of the colours for the NAWSA. “Purple is the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause. White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose; and gold, the color of light and life, is as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.” This was the same meaning of the colours that were used for the WSPU, their British counterpart.

Women's Suffrage Banner 1914 - 1917
Women’s Suffrage Banner 1914 – 1917

Purple is often a colour still used today in media and in reference to the woman’s movement. In the sexual revolution, symbols associated with feminism and progressive movement were being used to discuss topics about gender equality, workplace environment, rape, reproductive rights, domestic violence and independence. This created the movement called Womanism, which is the appreciation of culture, emotions and strengths of women. This movement acknowledges the needs and struggles of women of colour (especially for, Black women, Muslims, transgender, Latin, and other marginalized groups.) Books like The Feminist Mystique by Betty Friedan and The Colour Purple by Alice Walker added more symbolism and significance to the use of purple in woman’s movements.

Alice Walker once said:
“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”

Alice Walker describes pink as a feminine colour and purple has a colour for Womanism. She implies that the deeper colour is the greater ideological power than the lighter colour. Walker imposes that Womanism has different problems to overcome than feminism making Womanism more superior. Also, the notion of purple being the more vivid stand-out colour to most around. Purple is important to the Womanist movement because it symbolizes maturity, dignity and change.

Modern Uses of Purple

Purple started to adopt the identity of the movements it was a part of and the deep-rooted historical associations. Purple is continued to be used for other social awareness campaigns notably women issues. It is symbolic towards the ideas of feminism because of the early associations with social expectations and change. Purple has been used throughout the woman’s movement from anarchic symbols to awareness posters. It still carries a strong message of being dignified, loyal and with valour for social movements. Purple has changed identity with time, technological developments and social evolution.

If you want to view a post about a woman’s poster that was made, click here.


The Colours of Suffragettes – Irish Womens History
But Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States – MIT
The Women’s Liberation movement — CrossRef-It
Tyrian Purple – Ancient History Encyclopedia
Why Is the Color Purple Associated With Royalty? – Live Science

Banner Credit: Susan B Anthony stamp over a silk shroud of gold and Tyrian purple made for Charlemagne.
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