Purple has long been associated with royalty, nobility, luxury, and power. Throughout history, the color purple has held special meaning and symbolism. From ancient times to the present day, purple dye and purple garments have been synonymous with wealth, high status, and ambition. So it is no surprise that purple became closely linked to royalty around the world. Many of history’s most famous monarchs and dynasties made purple their official color. From Roman emperors to British royalty, purple has served as the distinctive color of kings, queens, princes, and princesses for centuries.
The Rarity and Expense of Purple Dye in Antiquity
In ancient times, purple dye was extremely rare and expensive to produce. The precious dye was derived from a species of predatory sea snails known as Murex. These snails were found in very limited habitats, mainly around the Phoenician city of Tyre, located in modern day Lebanon. To produce just a small amount of purple dye required thousands of snails and a laborious extraction process. As a result, purple cloth became a prized luxury item affordable only to the very wealthy.
The prohibitively high cost of purple dye meant it was reserved for royal garments and toga borders of the political and economic elites. In societies around the Mediterranean, purple fabrics came to represent wealth, distinction, and high social rank. As early as 1500 BC, the Minoans of Crete established purple as a royal color. Later, Alexander the Great arrayed his armies in purple as a sign of imperial power. But it was in ancient Rome where purple took on its most prestigious and politically important role.
Purple as the Color of Roman Emperors
In Rome, purple dye produced from Murex snails was known as Tyrian or Imperial purple. Roman historian Suetonius recorded that the Emperor Nero forbade any others from wearing Imperial purple on pain of death. As a result, purple garments became exclusive to the emperors. The phrase “to don the purple” came to signify accession to the throne. Political murders and coups were accompanied by the new emperor ceremonially dressed in purple robes.
The empress and her household were also permitted to wear the imperial purple, which highlighted the color’s association with status and ambition. Lower ranking magistrates and nobles could wear purple trimmed fabric called laticlavi as an indicator of high office. But strict sumptuary laws aimed to restrict overindulgence and keep the coveted purple dye from becoming devalued or too widely accessible.
Purple in Medieval and Renaissance Europe
After the fall of the Roman Empire, purple retained its status as a color of nobility, ambition, and privilege. In the medieval hierarchy of colors, purple stood just below gold and silver in its level of majesty. The Catholic Church adopted purple robes and vestments to symbolize the authority of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. Roman Catholic popes were distinguished by their exclusive right to wear white as well as purple. Meanwhile, European kings and queens dressed in purple as a display of regal status.
|Country||Royal Purple Use|
|British Isles||The official color of British sovereignty adopted in the 17th century under the House of Stuart.|
|France||The color of French royalty beginning with Charlemagne in the 9th century.|
|Spain||Used by Spanish royalty including Isabella I of Castile in the late 15th century.|
The purple of medieval nobility was generally a reddish shade known as Tyrian purple after the prized dye of ancient Rome. True Tyrian purple was still phenomenally expensive, so medieval artisans developed cheaper substitutes using locally available shellfish. As trade expanded, less expensive purple textiles began entering Europe from Asia. Yet purple clothing remained out of reach for all but the highest nobility throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Regal Purple in the 18th-20th Centuries
The association of purple and royalty continued into Early Modern Europe and beyond. During the 1700s and 1800s, new synthetic purple dyes emerged from the chemical revolution of the Industrial Age. This brought sumptuous purple textiles within reach of a broader aristocratic and wealthy clientele. Among the lower classes, purple clothing was still unattainable and provided obvious visual evidence of noble rank.
The British Royal Family made royal purple a hallmark of their dynastic branding. Queen Victoria wore purple for her Diamond Jubilee celebrating 60 years on the throne in 1897. Her successor King Edward VII used purple in his coronation ceremonies in 1901. Later monarchs continued the tradition, including King George V and Queen Elizabeth II at her 1953 coronation.
Other European monarchies maintained purple as a symbolic color well into the 20th century before many of their dynasties fell in World War I and II. The association of purple with privilege and ambition also extended to the New World, where it colored the pageantry of imperial Spain in Central and South America.
Modern Associations of Purple with Royalty
Today synthetic purple dyes have made purple clothing affordable and accessible at all levels of society. Yet purple remains ingrained in the public consciousness as a royal color imbued with richness and heritage. British royals still incorporate ceremonial purple elements into weddings, coronations, and other formal events. Royal purple evokes nostalgia for the age of kings and queens and the traditions of a bygone era.
Beyond Britain, many other monarchies continue to deploy purple as part of their royal branding and national identity. Here are some examples from around the world:
|Country||Royal Purple Use|
|Thailand||The color associated with King Bhumibol and the Chakri dynasty.|
|Jordan||Flag, ceremonies, and national symbols of the Hashemite Kingdom.|
|Belgium||The imperial purple of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.|
|Japan||Designated as a color of the Chrysanthemum Throne and the Order of the Garter.|
In contemporary fashion, purple also channels luxury and elegance with regal overtones. Designers such as Emporio Armani, Carolina Herrera, and Jason Wu have incorporated purple into glamorous evening wear. On the big screen, cinema audiences see purple’s royal mystique play out through the tragic French heroine Fantine in Les Misérables and the enigmatic monarch at the heart of Black Panther’s fictional Kingdom of Wakanda.
So in summation, purple has embodied royal privilege, ambition, and majesty from antiquity down through the centuries. The color’s historic rarity and splendor rendered it exclusive to emperors and kings who established purple as a dynastic and national symbol. In the modern era, even as purple has become ubiquitous in apparel and design, it retains an aura of nobility that continues to infuse ceremonies, pageantry, and popular culture.
For thousands of years, purple has been intrinsically linked to wealth, status, and power. The exorbitantly expensive purple dyes of ancient times meant only the most elite could afford this luxurious color. As a result, royalty and nobility adopted purple as their exclusive prerogative. Emperors and kings cultivated purple as a symbol of their reign, ambition, and majesty. This regal association persisted through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the monarchies of the 18th to 20th centuries.
Today, purple retains its imperial mystique even as modern production has democratized its use. Purple is embedded in the identity of monarchies worldwide who continue traditions established millennia ago. In fashion, media, and culture, purple channels luxury, nostalgia, and imagination. The rich heritage of purple as a quintessentially royal color ensures it will continue to convey nobility, privilege, and inspiration for generations to come.