The power and politics of purple, explored
The Innovation team at Instinctif harness the best of the future to deliver market-leading ideas in the present. The team’s specialism spans digital strategy and marketing, data & analytics, and strategic brand. With the world and news agenda fast-changing around us, now’s the time to get agile in how we think and work.
This newsletter brings you the best of the week in the ‘new normal’, straight from the desk of the Innovation team.
This week, Innovation’s Visual Strategy Director Matthew McGuinness provides a timely deep-dive into the power of the colour purple.
It’s a rich colour with a rich history – and a deep relevance in today’s politics, as Matthew reveals.
Purple’s origin story
According to the Greek scholar Julius Pollux, Hercules and his dog were walking along a beach one day when the dog bit a sea snail – the snail’s blood dyed the dog’s mouth and it drooled the colour of Tyrian Purple (or royal purple).
Tyre, Lebanon circa 1200 BCE, was the colour purple’s birthplace and, for a lengthy time, the only town in the world where one could purchase things in the colour purple. The dye’s production details were kept a secret for by the Tyrian city’s manufacturers, which fuelled the global demand for the colour and increased the Phoenicians trader’s affluence.
Coming from molluscs, it took as many as 250,000 of the invertebrates to yield just one ounce of usable dye. The rarity of the process influenced the dye’s cost; a pound of purple wool cost more than most people earned in a year, so the colour naturally became the calling card of rich and powerful.
During the Byzantine Empire, an empress gave birth in a Purple Chamber – so emperors were ‘born into purple,’ distinguishing them from those who won or seized their throne or title. Purple came to represent a certain degree of spirituality, because ancient Greek and Roman leaders who donned it were widely considered descendants of the gods.
Purple is (still) a relatively rare colour to be found in nature; its scarcity is why we perceive it to be both sacred and exotic. In her 1982 novel The Colour Purple, Alice Walker’s characters suggest that a person should have to face God’s wrath if they were to pass by the colour purple in a field and take no notice of it.
The colour of progress
The development of a synthetic compound by the English chemist William Henry Perkin in 1856 made the colour affordable and more accessible. It is at this point purple became associated with social change. In the Women’s Suffrage movement, suffragettes wore purple on their sashes. The fight for LGBTQ+ rights has made use of purple in its campaigns over the years.
It also became a prominent colour in the psychedelic and counterculture activities in the 60s – 70s (from Jimmi Hendrix to Deep Purple) as well as an extravagance, ambiguity and individualism in the 70s – 80s (think David Bowie, Prince).
Defending complicated systems
Purple promotes understanding and acceptance – as it is produced of two contrasting elements. According to colour theory, purple is made by mixing equal parts red and blue. Here, it takes on the characteristics of calm and stability inherent in blue, while balancing the red’s fierce energy and passion.
At its core, the colour purple advocates for peace, compassion, and sympathy.
The politics of purple
It is here, at this intersection of cool and warm that purple thrives in the political debate.
Authority figures dress-up in this bold hue because it embodies strength, prestige, and ability, attributes commonly desired by both political spheres.
During the 1990’s Peter Mandelson encouraged New Labour to embrace the colour purple when a young Tony Blair complained that Labour’s red was too symbolic of Socialism.
Purple in politics today
Recently the firebrand Republicans of Trump wielded their brand of red, not as Socialists, but as a weapon to peddle in conspiracy and lie, fomenting social discord – eventually inciting a murderous political insurrection on January 6 2021.
Four hundred thousand are dead due to the US Government’s dealing with COVID. A new civil rights conversation arose in the face of systematic racism responding to America’s policing policies (the Trump administration openly endorsing these discriminatory practices in the media).
An ongoing failure of governmental organisations planning to combat white supremacy at any level. And never mind the ever-exhausting time spent trying to keep up with rolling news, constant incident and misstep that engulfed his office tenure.
On January 20th, last week, I sat in front of my laptop working on a brand research document that coincidently was opened to the page I was drafting about Instinctif’s use of purple as a brand signifier, and I began to weep.
I cried, acknowledging the pain, hurt, and death many American people suffered under the President’s last four years. I teared up, listening to the resounding words of hope and healing and change that was the refrain of the day. I heard the call for unity as I witnessed the first African-Asian woman, Kamala Harris sworn into the office of Vice President – up from the Mall where Dr King had historically professed his dream.
At the inauguration, Kamala Harris dressed in a most exquisite and regal example of purple. The former FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, dressed in stoic mulberry purple. The former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wore a concentrated violet purple. And later in the day, Dr Jill Biden, the current First Lady, warmed herself in a lively amethyst purple coat.
This colourful collective expression of bipartisanship was by no means a coincidence. This Democratic administration is determined to foster a spirit of American solidarity and unification, not increasing the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
Just weeks into his new role, Joe Biden himself has worn a purple tie on camera, signing his first 15 of 21 executive orders as President. These executive orders rescind much of what the last administration put in place.
Enduring the perilous tenure of the 45th president has felt like its aged me a lifetime. In a state of enthusiastic awe, days on from Inauguration Day, I refer back to The Colour Purple, where Alice Walker writes:
“Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.”
For those who have not read it, The Colour Purple is principally about strong Black women enduring racism, subjugation, and subservience to both spectrums of the patriarchal order; in public and private. It is also a story about individual integrity, identity and self-determination, and America’s historical bond to slavery. The book can be read as a call for a (re)awakening and continued societal change.
This theme was captured in Joe Biden’s inaugural address, where he declares:
“A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.
A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront.
And we will defeat. To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words.
It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”
This appeal for unity has been evidenced by the Biden administration’s actively working to balance the current extremist moods held on the political stage today; boldly enlisting the colour purple’s historical and psychological characteristics to help enact political and social reform
Missing getting a regular culture fix? Or maybe you’re suddenly the proud (?!) owner of a sudden influx of DIY art from homeschooled members of your family.
Whichever side of this coin you fall on, we’ve got the answer. Colchester arts venue Firstsite’s new campaign: The Great Big Art Exhibition.
The programme sees individuals display homemade art around their houses to cheer us all up. And whether you’re a pro or a complete novice, anyone can take part.
Sally Shaw, director of Firstsite said, “The doors to our collections and galleries might be shut but our imaginations are forever open.”
The Great Big Art Exhibition started on 28 January and is running until the end of April.
You can sign up to download your pack here, providing you with all the information you need to take part
This week’s tip comes from Account Director, Matthew Whitbread:
I completely understand the challenges of lockdown 3.0 mixed with the doom and gloom of the media, so a really nice relief to make you feel better about the world and the people in it is Positive News.
It’s a quarterly publication that really brings to life exciting and positive things happening in the world, often with an uplifting human story at the heart.
It was through this that I came across Slow Ways, which is a new network of walking routes across the UK that is being developed and will link towns and cities across the Great Britain. They are delaying the launch of their new website due to the lockdown, but keep an eye out for its launch and ways that you can get involved and get outside more for a healthy walk to help create the network.