In Words

Not since Robin Hood first donned his Lincoln Green tunic has one man done so much for one colour. The untimely death of Prince has brought purple to the fore today, and what a fine colour he’s left us with too, not to mention all that wonderful music.

Ever since Old Testament times, purple has been a regal colour. Nero and Caligula killed for it, the Trojans dipped their horses’ tales in it, Odysseus and Penelope slept beneath it on their wedding night and King Solomon decorated the Temple of Jerusalem with it. Favoured by great rulers from Alexander to Catherine to the Emperors of China, not for nothing did Quality Street make their top choc purple.

So why the kudos? As with any commodity, the rarer and harder it is to make, the more valuable and desirable it becomes. Purple was made by the good people of Tyre by gathering thousands of tiny sea snails, shelling them, removing one particular gland, squeezing the juice out of it and leaving it in the sun. In a miraculous transformation, the juice turned from white, to yellow, to green, to red and then darkened to purple, whereupon it was taken out of the sun and applied to fabrics, fleeces and horses’ tails.

The dye was not only a lovely vivid colour, it also had excellent holding properties, so it didn’t run when the ancients accidentally put it in a hot wash.

In the 15th century, Pope Paul II instigated a fashion shift away from purple to scarlet and the colour fell from grace. At its lowest ebb, the Nazis commandeered purple to identify Jehovah’s Witnesses, which brings us back to Prince. A sad loss indeed. Never again will the colour purple be worn with such panache.

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