Have you ever worn an outfit so terrible it triggered a phobia? I have. When I was about seven, I wore a velvet ensemble to a school disco. Its color was purple. I imagined myself as an adult; my glamorous outfit. But then I saw a snapshot taken with a flash. With long, wavy white-blonde hair and a ghostly pale complexion, in that shiny purple outfit, I looked like a witch — and I wasn’t at a Halloween party.
Later, the color’s connotations elicited further dislike: part frilly cushion in a stately home, part Glasto hippie in harem pants, part pensioner with purple hairdo. People with lots of cats wore purple. As a color, it just wasn’t cool. I swore it for life.
I’m not the only one feeling this. Purple is one of the most “dividing” colors on the wheel, according to Joanne Thomas, chief content officer at Coloro, an arm of trend forecasting agency WGSN. A company I worked for goes so far as to ban staff from wearing it in the office; I can only assume his esthete of a homeowner finds the shade offensive.
Historically it’s been associated with wealth, worn by Alexander the Great, Egyptian kings and Queen Elizabeth II – no wonder the Elizabeth line is purple on the TFL card, or Prince sang ‘Purple Rain’. In the Bronze Age, 10,000 shellfish were crushed to create a single gram of dye. Only royalty could afford it. “It was difficult and expensive to create. . .[imperial purple]is not common in nature,” says Thomas.
These noble and affected origins have since turned into negative associations. Charlotte Rey, co-founder of London-based home decor specialist and design consultancy Campbell-Rey, says she thinks of poison when she contemplates purple. Cartoon villains often wear darker shades, from Dick Dastardly to Wacky races to Ursula in The little Mermaid.
But something changed when I came across the lilac cover of the nominee by Booker burnt sugar by Avni Doshi last year. Contrasting with a deep jungle green, this particular shade, with its cornflower blue undertones, looked warm, tranquil and clean – like a tub full of cool fabric softener I wanted to bathe in. It set off a chain reaction. I not only started noticing the purples, but enjoyed them too.
The points of contact were surprisingly numerous. The lilac cans of cold coffee of the minor figures. Tony’s Chocolonely Dark Milk Pretzel Toffee Bars in Eggplant Purple. The lavender and red labels of a bottle of de-alcoholized red wine from Domaine Wednesday. Orchid graphics for the pop-culture podcast Still in process. Mission turmeric and lavender tea; Tesco’s Free From packaging; British Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid’s myriad pastel hues, currently on display at the Tate.
Soon my retinas were registering centuries-old purples in a new light. Doors flanked by wisteria; lilac hydrangeas in the gardens of West Cumbria; the @scenic_simpsons Instagram account; Monica from Friendsthe living room wall; Freddo Chocolates. In an interview for the FT last year, when researching how certain colors become massive, Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of Pantone’s Color Institute, told me that certain shades become more palatable. the more we see them. This purple affection is proof of that.
Pantone has made Very Peri its color of 2022. “It represents a playful, joyful attitude ‘that seems right for now,’ as we enter a world of unprecedented change,” says Eiseman. Purple, a once unpopular hue, has become a symbol of novelty — a hue ripe for reinvention, much like our pandemic-era selves.
Today’s purple is sartorial comfort: it’s a visible change in the status quo. Fashion brands, always in search of freshness, have adopted it en masse: Studio Nicholson, Giorgio Armani and Issey Miyake have each proposed spring takes. “Our starting point for the collection was this idea of unlearning, challenging ideals and exploring new perspectives,” says Karin Gustafsson, creative director of Cos, who used bold hues in her SS22 collection.
It’s a compelling notion that sounds a lot like retail therapy. But it worked for me. A former color phobic, I picked up my very first purple outfit from Cos earlier this year – an oversized turtleneck sweater with loose sleeves, in a dark hue. It’s soft and slightly plush, goes well with pale blue jeans and every time I put it on I feel renewed. “Purple is unexpected, yet bold and impactful, engaging the senses and evoking optimistic emotions,” says Gustafsson. It is uplifting to wear sunglasses in which you would never be caught off guard.
Seb Beasant, the Swedish founder of running brand Torsa, introduced a lilac t-shirt into his minimalist and otherwise monochromatic kit this year. He wanted to change the tempo by “getting away from traditional sportswear colours”, he says. Today it outsells black. “People don’t want to blend in or play it safe anymore.”
Then I bought the On Running Cloudmonsters, which are bright purple with purple laces. All the other shoes in my closet are either black, brown, or white; a shiny sneaker feels appropriate for my new jogging ritual. They have also come to mean something deeper. I am currently training for my first marathon, something I never thought I would do; now, mid-sprint, when I look down and see my Technicolor feet pounding the pavement, purple seems like an opportunity. A living gateway to a realm of 26 miles.
The psychology of pigment is often discussed. During the pandemic, dressing in color was touted as a mood booster. But the symbolism of colors is on the rise: young generations keen on spiritualism are attaching more and more meaning to hues. Violet – an intermediate between a zealous red and a cold, calm blue – is a happy medium; a symbol of balance between two dominant primaries. It has come to represent gender neutrality; amethyst, its crystal counterpart, is said to promote feelings of peace and understanding. Think for a second of President Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021. The most worn color was purple – a bridge between red and blue.
A rare hue in nature, it also came to evoke an ethereal vibe. For AW22, purple appeared in sci-fi silhouettes at Loewe and Stella McCartney – the latter offered midi dresses and bulbous skirts with space-age pleats and fitted rib-knit catsuits. They wouldn’t look out of place on Futuramais Turanga Leela, the earthling with a purple ponytail.
Purple is commonly used in animation: for cartoonists it is easily shaded, creating shades and three-dimensional depth on screen; black, on the other hand, looks flat. And it’s a hue that translates well digitally: apps like TikTok and bingeable series like Euphoria and stranger things all use mauve tones. “They use it to elevate fantasy worlds,” says Thomas.
Softer lilac hues, similar to those used in warm, ultraviolet meditation lights, help combat the melancholic blue tint of screens and promote a sense of well-being. The average Brit spends four hours and 48 minutes alone on their phone each day, according to app monitoring firm App Annie: purple’s online presence is significant. “The internet can be cold and unfriendly, but tech companies recognize the need for products to be engaging,” says Thomas. Web developers and graphic designers use lilacs to allow customers to “connect and interact with [a brand’s] technology on an emotional level. . . it helps, rather than hinders, because it is a therapeutic shade”.
From one dimension to another. Interiors brands Ceraudo and Hay and designer Matilda Goad each offer parma violet colored accessories, while Farrow and Ball’s Calluna paint is inspired by Scottish heather – it has a black undertone that creates a clean, more relaxing. I am currently painting my hallway with it.
“At home it is [Calluna paint] becomes oddly neutral,” says Liza Laserow, co-founder of Nordic Knots, the Scandi purveyor of pristine ecru rugs; she converted to ombre when she introduced a mauve and green iteration to her collection in collaboration with Campbell-Rey. British painter Hester Finch uses lilac as an alternative to flesh tones in her nude works. She says it doesn’t bother the eye. But it’s also more inclusive than a peachy tone; an antidote to the whiteness represented in art for millennia.
Lilac offers a new direction today – one that “speaks of tranquility and peace. . . and is escapist and otherworldly,” says Thomas. In today’s polarized world, we might all benefit from a little more purple.