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Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Colour Coded

One of the surprising threads on social media after the US elections discussed the colour of Hillary Clinton's jacket lapels, many tweets expounded theories about the colour choice. Comments blended the Democrat Blue and the Republican Red into a common purple echoed in the words of Mrs Clinton's  speech after the vote, and the campaign slogan "Stronger Together."

The purple was interpreted as a colour of unity, now the campaigns are over the divergent sides are invited to come together. United and strong  to face the world and the future.

It struck me about the oddities of life, Hillary Clinton aspired to the highest office in the United States, to smash one of the remaining glass ceilings hanging over the heads of women, and yet some people still focus on her wardrobe.

The colour of her lapels is taken as something significant, perhaps it is, or maybe it isn't.

On the colour wheel it lies between red and blue, mix them together and the result is purple. It has never been a compromising colour. Historically symbolic of power and wealth, the sheer cost of the dye put it beyond the reach of all except the great and powerful, and the colour had its legal protections.

Julius Caesar returned from Egypt, besotted by the lavish purple textiles of the Egyptian court, clad in a purple toga; he declared that only he, as Emperor could wear it.

Centuries later, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was charged with high treason against Henry VIII, and on the charge sheet, he was accused of wearing purple, a privilege reserved for the king.

Tyrian Red, Royal Purple, Imperial Purple, Imperial Dye. The discovery of this dye is attributed to Heracles dog, who having picked up a murex snail on the beach developed a purple drool.

I gram of Dye stuff requires the contribution of 10,000 snails, an estimate supported by the spoil heaps of Murex shells at Sidon, some reaching forty metres in height. Despite the vast quantities required the murex never became extinct. The highest quality, Dipapha, was valued alongside gold and and silver in value, The Phoenician city of Tyre, traditional home of the ancient purple dye offered it in tribute to the kings of Assyria. ! gram of the dye stuff would colour the hem of a garment.

A price edict of 301 AD, in the reign of Diocletian valued the dye at 150,000 Denarii a pound, roughly three pounds of gold ($19,000). A pound of pre-dyed wool could be yours for a pound of gold.

A natural dye with a staying power that was legendary, the colour was a bright as the day it was dyed 180 years before. Alexander the Great captured the 5,000 talents weight of purple cloth, ( A talent was usually measured in gold or silver and averaged 70 lbs (33 kg) . The haul was over 150 tons of cloth.

With the weight of history at its back there is no impression of compromise in this colour. My earliest contact with its significance was a conversation with a local vicar discussion the arrival of a new incumbent in the next parish with the words, "He is destined for the purple."

The purple of the Bishop, in earlier times, the Princes of the Church. The boundary sign on the A1, the Ancient Great North Road where it enters County Durham in the North of England bears the script, "Home of the Prince Bishops." The control these princes of the church wielded over the county was part of the background to the reformation in England. Henry saw it as a challenge to his rule. Henry charged Surrey with treason for wearing purple.

There is no compromise in purple, it is the hue of power and wealth.

"Warning, when I am an Old Woman I shall wear purple," Jenny Joseph's poem about conformity and rebellion explores the expectations society imposes on us, the things we are expected to do, and for Mrs Clinton the expectation that she would win was almost unchallengable. Newsweek published with her on the cover and the proclamation, Good Morning Mrs President and the magazine went to press before all the results were in. the early results pointed towards the expectation, and falling in with that expectation she wore purple.

There is no compromise in purple, the price is too high.

People will always find a way around a problem, a way of cutting the cost. Purple could be prioduced fropm Lichens, or by dyeing with Madder (red) and then Woad (Blue). The Ancient Gauls used whortleberry to dye textiles purple and with some irony made the material into clothes for slaves.

Synthetic purple was discovered in the home laboratory of William Henry Perkin on Cable Street, London in 1856. A student of the Royal College of Chemistry he was trying to synthesise Quinine, an expensive treatment for Qunine.

His dye, Mauveine was patented in 1856 and Perkin barely eighteen years old. Thismade the production of purple possible without the Murex. Commercial production beckoned and the raw material, coal tar was widely available as a by-product of coal gas and coke. Now the colour was available to a vastly wider market than ever before, but the connection with power and influence could not be broken.

The language of colour is always changing, adding to it's history and emphasis and the last fifteen years have seen politicians opting for Purple, especially in the choice of tie colour. Former British PM's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were early adoptees of the colour. Blair's mantra was "The Third Way," another way of doing things that drew on a wider platform than party politics, described as a more "global" approach, or should that be "Global?"  Curiously, the Third Way was also how Benito Mussolini described his policies as leader of the Italian Fascist Party.

Mussolini styled himself, "Il Duce" - the leader and sought to recreate Italy as a great European power with Imperial aspirations. and we're back down the old road. Imperial purple and rule of emperors.

It would seem, however you might look at it, Purpe is not a colour of compromise.

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