Art and culture

How Colours Signify Power in Different Cultures

From royal purple to millennial pink, colour and command have gone hand-in-hand across cultures throughout history

Colour runs like a bright thread through our history. The impact it has on our culture is shown by our vocabulary alone: scarlet woman, purple prose, red lines, blue blood, black mood.

Going to prison for wearing the wrong colour may feel rather Handmaid’s Tale in the 21st century, but in the Middle Ages in Japan, China, France and England, the crown regularly jailed those who dared violate the strict social boundaries of the time by doing so. Peasants were to be clad in dull russet hues, the middle classes in the anonymity of blue, while saturated purple, vivid saffron and blood-red were reserved for aristocrats and those in religious orders. 

While we may have evolved away from jailing people for flouting the laws of hue, we still heavily associate some colours with certain genders and nationalities, while others are symbols of sex or success.

Studies on the relationship between colour and branding show that 90 per cent of snap judgments are based on hue: red for passion, yellow for optimism and green for wealth.

But dig a little deeper and many of these heavily used signifiers are based on the flimsiest of associations.

Walk into any maternity ward and you’ll be confronted with the most pervasive colour association of our time: pink for girls and blue for boys. This tradition is so ingrained in our society that feminist movements have been forced to revolt against the association between femaleness and pink, arguing that it is reductive to little girls.

Illustration: Angela Ho

But contrary to our current social codes, throughout most of history pink was seen as a powerful, passionate colour best left to the boys. The Virgin Mary was always demurely draped in blue, while French kings insisted on surrounding themselves with bright pink in its look-at-me flamboyance – so much so that Louis XV of France had all his traditionally blue Sèvres porcelain redone in pink to make it more masculine. An article from The New York Times in 1893 cheekily stated that you should always give pink to a boy and blue to a girl because ‘the boy’s outlook is so much more roseate than the girl’s that it is enough to make the baby girl blue thinking about her life as a woman’.

How does such a powerful societal shift happen? Rather easily, it turns out. In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe started wearing designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s shocking pink collections, and the trend quickly caught on. Vogue editor Diana Vreeland declared pink ‘chic’ (and famously called it ‘the navy blue of India’) and lo, our gender associations shifted.

Although if pink is India’s navy blue, then saffron must be its imperial purple. Saffron is a shade so heavily associated with money and power in India that it is even present in the national flag, placed there as a reminder to leaders to be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work. This moral-heavy symbolism may be working better on monks than politicians – Buddhist robes are dyed saffron to show how their wealth resides in their calling.

Saffron, measure for measure, remains the most expensive spice in the world: partly because of the intense hue, but also because it takes nearly 100,000 flowers to produce just one kilo of the spice. Despite having no medicinal value, it has been used as an aphrodisiac and in hopes of curing everything from toothache to the plague. Cardinal Wolsey filled his room with the spice, as did Cleopatra. Alexander the Great allegedly bought sack-loads of the stuff to make his famous locks shimmer like gold.

The only colour that can rival saffron for its ludicrously luxurious associations is purple. In the ancient world, purple was the most difficult colour to make and as a result it has been associated with power for millennia. In every continent, rich, deep purple has been symbolic of opulence, excess and rulers.

To be born surrounded by purple was to be born into royalty, as the 1,500-year old Byzantine custom of covering the royal birthing chambers with wine-coloured tapestries illustrates. In Japan, deep purple was a forbidden colour for hundreds of years, off-limits to ordinary people – who were beheaded if they were caught owning anything in the colour. Emperors, meanwhile, slept in purple rooms and bathed in purple pools.

Perhaps rulers should have been warier of commoners wearing red, as no colour has more of an impact on our psyche. Waitresses dressed in red today get tipped 25 per cent more, and English football teams wearing red kit have a 10 per cent higher chance of winning. Almost every country has used the shade as a show of military power: Roman generals, British redcoats, French revolutionaries and Aztec scarlet headdresses, to name but a few.

As the colour of blood, it is the shade most associated with the vital moments of life: birth, sex, danger and death. The devil is usually depicted as red, and fallen or sexualised women are often associated with the shade. Meanwhile, for centuries in China the colour red was associated with burials. Culture shifts fast, however, and today in China it is a symbol of good luck and is not seen at funerals.

Religion, too, has had a profound impact on our relationship with colour. Muslims have always associated Paradise with lush, beautiful gardens, and as a result green is linked with joy – hence why it features on the flags of so many Islamic countries. But as a result of the Crusades, green quickly became associated with the devil in the West and has only stopped being reviled as a hue in the last century.

In China, egg-yolk yellow was long associated with emperors, power, royalty and prosperity, while in India, a buttery version of the colour was seen as spiritual and linked to Krishna. But on the flip-side, yellow has also been used to denote illness and subversion. The star the Nazis forced the Jewish people to wear is one of the most notorious examples of the use of yellow as a colour of stigma. And the ‘yellow peril’ originating in the 1800s cast east Asians as an existential threat to the West.

Then there is white: a non-colour associated with the divine and the unknown afterlife. It’s a difficult shade to make and an even harder one to keep clean, and today everyone from Calvin Klein to Apple has drawn on its modernist and minimalist associations, and used it to show cleanliness, hope and newness.

Today, deep in the tech age, our obsession with colour remains. Millennial pink gave way to Gen-Z yellow last year, and trend forecaster WGSN says that 2020 will apparently see the rise of ‘Neo Mint’. It’s all part of an endless quest for better, brighter colours to express who we are and how we feel: a fundamental part of being human, our need to document the vivid reality of being alive. 

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