‘Ultra Violet 18-3838’ is 2018’s ‘colour of the year’, as selected by Pantone Color Institute. History curator Kirstie Ross looks at the symbolism of purple from ancient Rome to the fight for women’s rights.
Ultra Violet 18-3838
‘Ultra Violet 18-3838’ is 2018’s ‘colour of the year’, as selected by Pantone Color Institute.
It more or less matches the colour of the electrical storm photographed by Brian Brake (below).
Pantone describes this shade as ‘a dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple’ that ‘communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future.’
Such ‘purple’ qualities are important for creativity. The Colour Purple is even the title of the 1982 award-winning novel by American writer Alice Walker. And it has coloured the music of visionaries like Jimi Hendrix and Prince. Listening to Prince’s Purple Rain inspired artist Julian Dashper’s work Purple Rain at Glorit (below).
Less cool and closer to home: purple was my favourite colour while growing up in the 1970s, and I pestered my mother so much that she knitted me a twinset in the brightest shade of amethyst.
Purple = status
Much further back in time, purple clothing indicated the status, power and wealth of the wearer in ancient Western cultures. It was associated with and often restricted to elites. Roman Julius Caesar for example limited the wearing of the purple or purple-striped toga trabea to emperors (which applied to his heir Augustus, whose face appears on the 2000-year-old coin below).
Purple from a snail
Millenia ago, the natural purple dye, which was called ‘Tyrian purple’, was extracted from a predatory sea snail murex brandaris (illustrated below) and was very expensive to make. It took the colour-bearing glandular mucus of 12,000 snails to produces just 1.4 gram of the pure dye – just enough to dye the trim of one garment. 
Accidental man-made mauve
Purple textiles became far more accessible after 1856, after a synthetic purple dye was invented – accidentally – by an 18-year-old English chemistry student (who was trying to make quinine).
This was the first ‘analine dyestuff’ and it was given the more modish name of ‘mauve’.
Purple at Te Papa
Here’s a selection of garments in various shades of purple in our collections.
Purple for suffrage
Fifty-two years later, in 1908, British suffragettes campaigning for the vote chose purple as one of three colours to represent their cause. This was because of its rich symbolism – not because it was in fashion. Green and white completed the trio.
According to one suffrage publication, purple stood for ‘the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity’. White stood for purity and green was the colour of ‘hope and the emblem of spring’. 
Suffragettes revealed their colour scheme to the general public 100 years ago, on 21 June 1908. The occasion was the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union’s first ‘monster meeting’ at Hyde Park, in London. One participant described the impact of the colourful suffrage banners in the park:
A song, written for marchers on the pre-meeting processions, reinforced the importance of the suffrage colours:
“Purple a-flutter with White and Green….what do the tricolour standards mean?
Purple stands for the loyal heart, Loyal to cause and King;
White for Purity, Green for hope, Bright hopes of Spring.” 
The three colours were also used on a slew of items that were produced to promote women’s suffrage or sold to raise funds for the cause. And details on medals awarded to suffragette hunger strikers (after they were released from prison) were also green, purple and white.
The purple of the suffragettes is just as relevant today as it was in 1908.
2018 is the 100th anniversary of suffrage in Britain and 125 years in New Zealand.
Purple in Aotearoa = waiporoporo
Purple is the core colour in the Suffrage 125 logo designed to mark this anniversary in New Zealand, when the British colony lead the world by recognising and granting women the same political rights as men.
I’m hoping for plenty of purple as this year progresses!
 David Jaocby, ‘Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 58, 2004, p. 210.
 Diane Atkinson, The Purple, White & Green: Suffragettes in London 1906-14, Museum of London, 1992, p. 15.
 Atkinson, The Purple, White & Green, p. 17.
The Museum of London has an extensive collection of suffragette material, much of which features the movement’s distinctive colour scheme.