These days, it’s common to see the colour purple in every aspect of life: from teens wearing purple dresses to kids playing with purple toys, and from women putting dried lavender bunches by the bedside to people using purple blankets, it’s easy to forget about its noble roots.
Several hundred years ago, in fact, purple was the premium colour. It was the most expensive of all dyes, associated with nobility because — quite literally — only the nobility could afford to have it.
The Value of Purple
Purple was the colour of the aristocracy because of the costly manner of its dye production. Originating from Tyre, a Phoenician trading city, purple dye was made from thousands of rare marine snails called Bolinus brandaris. They were boiled for days in giant lead tubs. Workers cracked open the snail’s shell to get the mucus and turned them into purple dye with heat and light. About 250,000 snails were required to create just an ounce of the precious dye.
Because of the rarity of the snails and the labour-intensive manufacturing process, purple dye was accessible only to the wealthy. In fact, during the age of the Roman Empire, purple fabric was worth its weight in gold.
Association with the Nobility
Because of its rarity and worth, it was used a status symbol, associated with the ruling class of Rome, Egypt, Persia, and even China. Moreover, Tyrian purple became linked to spirituality because it resembled clotted blood, which in turn is linked to divinity. The connotations of the colour prevailed until the Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth I forbade everyone except relatives of the royal family to wear the colour.
However, as manufacturers began to mass-produce synthetic purple textiles, the exclusivity of purple waned. And, with it, its use as a status symbol.
Despite its fall from grace with nobility, purple is still associated with luxury, ambition, and extravagance. It’s still a good colour to use to make a statement, though.