Gatekeeping Purple

Gatekeeping Purple

By Ruby Wortis

From ancient civilizations to modern countercultures, purple plays a symbolic role in the expression of political prowess. Colors have always held profound cultural significance, and purple in particular is a lesson in the transfer of power from the elite to the many.

Indigenous cultures have been making short-lasting purple dyes from lichens in perpetuity, but it wasn’t until the Phoenicians (an ancient culture residing along the Eastern part of the Mediterranean) discovered a way to extract vibrant purple pigment from the ~glandular mucus of sea snails~ that the color began to take off as a social symbol. The extraction of the ~~glandular mucus of sea snails~~ was an arduous process with limited resources. The expense and rarity of this dye made purple items highly sought after and popular amongst the elite. Cleopatra famously had all of her furniture reupholstered in purple after seeing the dye for the first time.

And because the rich and connected have an insatiable appetite for feeling special, purple became a color legally reserved only for those who were deemed important enough to wear it. Julius Caesar ruled that only emperors could wear the color. His Senators, naturally jealous of his violet drip, fought for the right to wear just one stripe of purple on their robes. This amendment to the law was granted, but nothing more.

Queen Elizabeth I had a similar rule that only allowed royalty and religious figures to wear the color. Apparently King Henry VIII was wont to charge you with treason if he caught you with even one tiny lilac sock.

Everything changed, however, when a 19th century scientist discovered a synthetic purple (presumably by mixing blue and red, which maybe no one had thought to do before?).

Fast forward to the 1960s, a decade marked by social upheaval, cultural transformation, and the emergence of the counterculture movement. This era saw a radical shift in societal norms and a rejection of established institutions. It was during this time that purple took on an association with mysticism and spirituality. The color quickly gained prominence as a symbol of rebellion and nonconformity.

One of the most iconique figures of the 1960s counterculture was the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Known for his mesmerizing and face-melting guitar skills, Hendrix became an emblem of the era's psychedelic movement. In 1967, he released the song "Purple Haze," which became a sort of anthem for the counterculture generation.

"Purple Haze" captured the spirit of the times, with its cryptic and mind-expanding “do you ever think about how… like… small we are, man?” lyrics suggesting a psychedelic experience. Hendrix's powerful music resonated deeply with a generation hungry for artistic expression and social change.

As we look back on the history of the color purple, we gain a deeper understanding of its cultural significance and its ability to transcend time. Whether it adorns the robes of ancient rulers or becomes the soundtrack of a generation's collective consciousness, purple remains a color that sparks our imagination and reminds us that self expression through color is a right for all.