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What is the history of the color purple and royalty?

What is the history of the color purple and royalty?

Purple is a color that has long been associated with royalty, nobility, luxury, and power. Throughout history, the rarity and expense of purple dyes helped establish purple as a status symbol among royalty and high society. Understanding the history of purple helps explain its enduring connection to royalty across cultures and time periods.

The Origins of Purple Dyes

The rarity and expense of purple dyes stem from their origins in antiquity. Purple dyes were extremely difficult to produce in ancient times, requiring large quantities of certain rare shellfish.

The primary source of purple dye in the ancient world was the secretion of the spiny dye-murex snail. Thousands of these tiny snails had to be gathered and boiled alive to yield just a small amount of purple dye. As a result, purple cloth became tremendously expensive. It took an estimated 10,000-12,000 mollusks to produce just 1 gram of Tyrian purple dye.

Other sources of purple dyes included the purple sea urchin and certain lichens. But these sources were also labor-intensive to harvest and produce much lower yields of dye. The intricate process of preparing and working with purple dyes meant that purple clothing was largely reserved for the ruling and noble classes who could afford it.

Purple in Ancient History

Some of the earliest evidence of purple as a status symbol comes from the ancient kingdom of Phoenicia (located in modern-day Lebanon). As early as 1500 BC, Phoenician traders harvested murex snails from the Mediterranean Sea to produce coveted purple cloth. The signature purple and crimson dyes produced in Phoenician cities like Tyre and Sidon were highly prized across the Mediterranean.

In ancient Greece and Rome, purple retained its elite status. Purple stripe accents on white togas denoted Roman senators and noblemen. And the purple-trimmed robes of Roman emperors declared their status, nobility, and power. The phrase “born to the purple” referred to those born into imperial families.

Outside of the Mediterranean, there is also extensive evidence for purple as a royal color in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. Natural indigo and shellfish purple dyes were used to decorate the cloaks and garments of rulers and priests.

Purple in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, purple fabrics remained expensive and predominantly limited to royalty. Specific purple hues were codified in sumptuary laws that regulated who could wear which colors. For instance, kings and princes wore fabrics dyed with Tyrian purple, while lower-ranked nobles wore lighter purples and violets.

Medieval rulers were crowned and buried in purple robes. Kings and queens sat on thrones of purple velvet and presided over courts filled with purple banners. Royal decrees and proclamations were sealed with purple wax seals. Purple came to symbolically represent Christian rulers’ divine right to rule.

Purple retained its royal symbolism as dye production methods slowly improved in Europe. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Italian cities like Florence pioneered new techniques of producing high-quality purple dyes at greater volumes to supply the lavish fabrics sought after by the nobility.

The Color Purple Goes Mass Market in the 19th Century

Up through the 18th century, purple clothing remained out of reach for common people in Europe. But in the mid-19th century, the industrial revolution transformed the accessibility of the color purple via new synthetic dye production methods.

In 1856, chemist William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered a way to synthesize the vivid purple dye known as mauveine. This early synthetic dye helped trigger a surge in purple clothing production. By the late 19th century, chemists developed hundreds of synthetic purple dyes, making vivid purple fabrics widely available. The democratization of purple clothing helped disassociate the color from solely being a symbol of aristocracy.

However, lighter shades of purple, like lavender and lilac, retained their genteel connotations. Queen Victoria made the lighter purple color of mourning fashionable following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861.

Purple in 20th Century Fashion and Pop Culture

In the early 20th century, purple remained a color associated with feminine glamour and elegance. Fashion icons like Coco Chanel helped popularize purple in women’s clothing. Chanel used shades of violet and amethyst in many of her most famous designs.

By the late 1960s, purple became a color associated with counterculture and psychedelic style. Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 smash hit “Purple Haze” helped cement the color as a fixture of funk, rock, and hippie style. Prince’s 1984 album and film “Purple Rain” also popularized purple as a bold pop culture symbol of freedom and individuality.

In marketing, the color purple stimulates creativity and spirituality. It is a popular branding color for subjects related to mysticism, fantasy, and religion. Purple retains links to royalty via brands seeking to convey luxury, nostalgia, or power. Examples include Crown Royal Whisky and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate.

Purple and Royalty in Today’s World

While purple has shed some of its formal and exclusive connotations, it maintains subtle connections to nobility and ceremony across cultures. Western royals today continue traditions of using purple accents for official portraits, crowns, sashes, and thrones.

Purple also remains important in royal traditions outside of Europe. For instance, purple is a holy color in Thai culture, closely linked to Thai royalty. Thailand’s King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit creatively used purple in ceremonies and projects to reinforce their royal authority.

Beyond ruling families, purple retains connotations of prestige and ceremony more broadly. Graduation gowns are traditionally purple to denote universities’ royal charters granted in the Middle Ages. Catholic cardinals wear purple robes to symbolize the authority of the church. Purple is also a popular color for award show red carpets and celebrity style.


In summary, purple has endured as a royal color across cultures and historical eras due to the rarity and cost of its production. Ancient purple dyes denoted status, luxury, and wealth. While purple became more accessible by the late 19th century, it retains subtle connotations of prestige and nobility today. Lighter purples continue traditions of elegance and femininity, while vivid purples symbolize creativity and individuality. Understanding the long history of purple helps explain its enduring connection to royalty and ceremony.