Over the Rainbow

Just what are the colours that go?

The question of colour seems to present even the most sartorially savvy gent with innumerable dilemmas; hence the ubiquity of brown, navy, black and gray in most men’s wardrobes. As I am colour blind, the hues of my dress – whether they complement or clash – pose particular difficulties, but what I’m really referring to is the cultural baggage that colours carry; the meanings they convey and the perceptions they create.

Back in 2008, Guardian columnist Zoe Williams drew attention to the fact that several British politicians – Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Alistair Darling & Peter Mandelson – were all sporting purple ties. Purple was the ‘go-to colour for political gravitas’, apparently.[i] Williams commented on purple’s make-up as a ‘triangulated’ colour, combining red (Labour) and blue (Conservatives) – yellow (Lib. Dems.) ??! – in a ‘have-it-all-ways, new-world-order shade that speaks of flexibility and thinking outside the box’.[ii] Purple also has pedigree. In the medieval period, it was a singularly imperial colour. Byzantine emperors born in the purple chamber of the imperial palace in Constantinople, the Porphyra – a room only accessible to females within the imperial family – bore the suffix ‘porphyrogennetos’, literally ‘born in the purple’. This title proclaimed an emperor’s legitimacy within a bloody and politically insecure world.[iii] Williams also pondered whether the politicians’ decision to don purple was inspired by Michelle Obama, a symbol of twentieth-first century female power. Obama had worn purple earlier in the year, perhaps in reference to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple ‘and making a point about the emancipation of African-American women.’[iv] Not all of Michelle Obama’s colour choices have proved so influential. In January 2011, her decision to wear a red Alexander McQueen gown at a state dinner in honour of the Chinese president was widely criticised. It was suggested that red was chosen ‘for the deep symbolism the colour […] carries in China.’[v]

There is at least one Chinese politician who appears to like bold colours. Whilst the enigmatic, and recently absent, president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, has a penchant for conservative black suits, he has been known to wear brighter ties, including purple and pink, perhaps to court the favour of younger Chinese workers.[vi] This is not to say that darker colours are always associated with stiff traditionalism. President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan, the world’s newest country, sports dark suits. Apparently, this expresses his aspiration to emulate the modernity of the west and his willingness to embrace the ‘western wealth ethic’.[vii]

All manner of websites and print media stress the importance of ‘colour psychology’, but few explain how meanings came to be attached to colours. This seems to be particularly important omission if you wish to make the right impression and send the appropriate sartorial signals.[viii] As ever, present hang-ups and foibles have their roots in the past.

Shade & Hue

It was during the twelfth century that meanings started to become attached to different colours. In the Middle Ages a color’s hue, that is, its defining shade (red, blue, green etc.), meant little. More important was a color’s value, that is, the quantity of white or black, light or dark, it contained. If white (light) and black (dark) occupied opposite poles of the medieval colour spectrum, red – sometimes green – was seen as a median colour.[ix] Blue was unique and could occupy both ends of the scale, as it was interpreted as both light and dark.[x] The second point to note is that a colour derived meaning from its value. All colours had positive and negative associations, but one attribute was invariably stronger than the other, depending on the quantity of white or black it was thought to contain.[xi] Although medieval colour theory was not determined by hue, a hue-based colour symbolism was not unknown. The advent of heraldry and blazonry in the twelfth century did much to establish the rules and vogues of colour usage.

Red and yellow and pink and blue…

So what do different colours mean?


Red is traditionally associated with divinity and royalty and possesses many positive virtues, not least charity and largesse. These sentiments were particularly important in chivalry and Christianity and explain why red is ubiquitous in the heraldry of northwest Europe.[xii] In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV of France introduced red heels, ‘probably to confirm the elevation of his court above the rest of humanity.’[xiii] The phrase talons rogues apparently came to be associated with the ‘futile insolence’ of the king’s courtiers.[xiv] Criticism notwithstanding, the trend was copied by other courts and survives today. Red heels form part of the ceremonial garb worn by the royal pages during the state opening of parliament in Westminster and the garter ceremony at Windsor.[xv] Red’s association with extreme emotion originated in Roman times and derives from the colour of blood.[xvi]


During the thirteenth century blue became ‘la couleur préferée’ for the kingdoms of northwest Europe.[xvii] Supplanting red as the colour of fashion and privilege, blue became the popular choice for heraldry and dyestuffs till the seventeenth century. Two French kings, Philippe Auguste (1179-1223) and Louis IX (1226-1270), were important protagonists in this transition. The prestige of these rulers created an indissoluble connection between blue – the champ (or ‘background’) of the French royal arms – and royalty. Blue was certainly a suitable colour for a monarch to adopt, for it represented faith, justice and loyalty.[xviii] The popularity and ubiquity of blue was not universal, though. In Spain, the colour represented jealously.[xix]

Oh, but – well, thank you! George is actually blushing a little. It’s as if he has been offered a rose. He chooses a yellow sharpener.

Kenny grins: ‘I kind of expected you’d pick blue.’


‘Isn’t blue supposed to be spiritual?’

‘What makes you think I want to be spiritual? And how come you’ve picked red?

‘What’s red stand for?’

‘Rage and lust.’

‘No kidding?’

from: A Single Man, C. Isherwood.

Green & Yellow

In Islam, green is regarded positively, as the colour of paradise. In Christianity, green – and yellow, with which it is often compared – is seen less positively. It is a colour of disorder and chaos. The negative associations of green are amply demonstrated in the fourteenth-century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.[xx] Due to its unwelcome connotations, green was used infrequently in heraldry. The colour does possess some virtues, chiefly youthfulness and verve; it was also associated with amorousness and, curiously enough, justice.[xxi] Commenting on the fact that justice was often done in the open during the medieval period, ‘at a certain green place’, John Watts has suggested that green may have had a specific association with justice in England. In Westminster Hall, the court of Common Pleas convened in front of a green painted wall.[xxii] Green’s association with justice could explain why criminals in the Nazi concentration camps wore green inverted triangles on their clothing.[xxiii]

The chief problem with yellow is that it is the colour of fire and brimstone: Hell. This association explains why yellow also represent chaos and disorder. The fact that yellow and green both refer to the inversion of normality explains why they were traditionally worn by court jesters.[xxiv] In the sixteenth century, as wars of religion raged across Europe, the wearing of yellow was sufficient to topple even the mightiest of families.[xxv] Yellow dye was derived from saffron, which did make it expensive and, at times, commensurately desirable, but as yellow is also the colour of dried sweat and urine, it could just as easily be associated with a lack of hygiene.[xxvi] I shall not dwell on the fact that yellow is my favourite colour … although Elizabeth II seems rather fond of it, too.[xxvii]


Today, western countries tend to associate black most commonly with death and mourning. In the later middle ages, black was popular among the aristocracy, who liked dark fur and fabrics and imported black silk from Italy. ‘The apparent refusal of the duke of Burgundy, an inimitable trendsetter, to wear anything but black after the assassination of his father in 1419, assured [that] the prestige and popularity of the colour lasted well into the fifteenth century.’[xxviii] Black was a colour of luxury and elegance. In Japan, it denotes experience, in contrast to white that betokens naiveté.[xxix]

And finally

Remembering the cultural baggage that colours carry while I am simultaneously trying to decide whether the tie I am holding is red or green is not always easy. If I really am struggling and need practical assistance, my only recourse is to a colour wheel. I have one pinned up in my study. If you cannot identify the number in the Ishihara pattern below, you may be colour blind and in need of a colour wheel, too.[xxx]

[i] Z. Williams, ‘How purple became the new colour of politics’, G2 (8 December 2008), 2.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] M. Whittow, The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025 (Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1996), 372; J. Herrin, Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium (London, 2001), 65.

[iv] Williams, ‘purple’, 2.

[v] S. Frankel, ‘Why Britannia wasn’t so cool for Michelle’, The Independent (29 January 2011), 3.

[vi] J. Bergman, ‘People’s princeling’, Monocle, 53:6 (2012), 62.

[vii] T. McConnell, ‘Seen not herd’, Monocle, 52:06 (2012), 58

[viii] J. Manning, ‘The Meaning of Color in Fashion’. http://suite101.com/article/the-meaning-of-color-in-fashion-a41726; ‘Color Psychology and Marketing’. www.precisionmedia.com/color.html; Zephyr, ‘Colors and Mood: how the colors you wear affect you’. www.collegefashion.net/fashion-tips/colors-and-mood-how-the-colors-you-wear-affect-you/; ‘Meaning of colors’. www.mens-fashion-authority.com/meaningofcolors.html. All accessed: 3-xj-2012.

[ix] B. Berlin & P. Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (Berkeley, 1969); H.C. Conklin, ‘Color Categorization,’ American Anthropologist, new ser., 75 (1973), 931-42.

[x] K. Badt, ‘Blue,’ in, The Art of Cézanne, tr. S. Ann Ogilvie (London, 965), 58-72.

[xi] J. Gage, Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (London, 1999), 68-71.

[xii] M.P. Whitney, ‘Queen of Mediæval Virtues: Largesse,’ in Vassar Mediæval Studies, ed. C.F. Fiske (New Haven, 1923), 183-215.

[xiii] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005),15.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] ‘Symbolism of the color red in antiquity’. www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/reds2.html. Accessed: 3-xj-2012.

[xvii] M. Pastoreau, ‘Et puis vint le bleu,’ in his, Figures et Couleurs: études sur la symbolique et la sensibilité médiévales (Paris, 1986),15; idem, ‘La promotion de la couleur bleue au XIIIe siecle: Le temoignage de l’heraldique et de l’emblematique,’ in Il colore nel Medioevo: arte, simbolo, tecnica (Lucca, 1996), 7-16.

[xviii] M. Pastoureau, ‘Les couleurs medievales: systemes de valeurs et modes de sensibilite,’ in his, Figures et Couleurs, 40.

[xix] H.A. Kenyon, ‘Color Symbolism in Early Spanish Ballads,’ Romantic Review, 6 (1915), 327-40.

[xx] D.R. Howard, ‘Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain,’ Speculum, 39 (1964), 425-33.

[xxi] V.A. Chamberlin, ‘Symbolic Green: A Time-Honored Characterizing Device in Spanish Literature,’ Hispania, 51 (1968), 29-37.

[xxii] J. Watts, ‘Looking for the State in Later Medieval England’, Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. P. Coss & M. Keen (Woodbridge, 2002), 249-50.

[xxiii] ‘Classification system in Nazi concentration camps’, www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005378. Accessed: 3-xij-2012.

[xxiv] M. Pastoureau, ‘Formes et couleurs du désordre: le jaune avec le vert,’ in his, Figures et Couleurs, 23-34 at 27-9; H. Pleij, Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After, tr. D. Webb(New York & Chichester, 2004), 84-5.

[xxv] A. Rosalind Jones & P. Stallybrass, ‘Yellow starch: fabrications of the Jacobean court’, in their, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge, 2000), 59-85.

[xxvi] Ibid., 66-67.

[xxvii] N. Collins, ‘Queen employs Royal shoe-wearer to soften up new leather’. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/queen-Elizabeth-II/9278018/Queen-employs-Royal-shoe-wearer-to-soften-up-new-leather.html. Accessed: 3-xj-2012.

[xxviii] B.L. Wild, ‘Secular dress: later medieval’, Encyclopaedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Brill, 2012), 498-99.

[xxix] ‘Intro to blacks’. www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/blacks.html. Accessed: 3-xj-2012.

[xxx] Apparently, you should see the number 7…

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