The power of Purple

It began with mollusk mucus -- not the most inviting thought -- a gooey, staining secretion from sea snails. Its dark-red color so delighted folks in ancient times that they used it as a coveted fabric dye. The Greeks coined it porphura. Medieval Europe combined it with rare blue dye to create what they called purple -- a bold, distinctive and expensive hue reserved for aristocrats and royalty.

That's when the color's allure took hold, back when it was difficult to come by.


Today, purple is prevalent yet it still possesses a look-at-me quality -- as evidenced by the purple-lit buildings throughout downtown Baltimore that celebrate the success of the purple-clad Ravens this season.

This fusion of the primary colors red and blue has always evoked passion, self-assurance, status and sensuality. Not only has purple held its own among modern-day teals, fuchsias and burnt oranges, it's garnered a devoted fan base of folks who can't seem to get enough of it.


"People who love purple are obsessed about the color," said Bernadette Jones, who runs a purple-lovers gift store, Purple Passion, out of her Waldorf home. Among the more than 70 items she sells: Pencils with purple erasers scented with lavender oil, purple office staples, hand-painted purple sandals and lavender lemon pound cake.

Yet the items for sale are almost outdone by her purple-themed attire: purple blouse and sweater, purple ring, necklace, earrings, fingernails and purple satin shoes.

Fashion may be one area where purple struggles a bit for acceptance in the color family, although Jones proudly revealed that purple makes up half her wardrobe.

"At my church, people get offended when I don't wear purple," Jones said. "They say to me, 'Oh, you're not wearing purple today,' and they seem disappointed."

Jones is merely following in the footsteps of others who were known for their purple, such as Alexander the Great and emperors of the Roman Empire.

Through the years, purple's significance has varied as the color has spread.

"From as far back as the ancient Jewish kabbalah and

in Christianity in the Middle Ages, purple was really looked at [as] holding a quality with leadership," said Kate Smith, founder of Sensational Color, an Arlington, Va., company that teaches the psychology and usefulness of color.


During Old Testament times, she says, purple was associated with splendor and dignity. And "when Catholic priests are raised to the level of bishops or cardinals, the term is, 'raised to the purple.'"

In ancient Egypt, she says, the purple stone amethyst was viewed as having healing and protective properties. Purple was also a favorite of Cleopatra.

In Thailand, however, purple has a different purpose: It is related to mourning and is worn by a widow after her husband's death.

The Purple Heart is awarded by the president to those who have been wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military. Stephen Cobb, commander of Virginia's Military Order of the Purple Heart, said George Washington chose purple silk, the color of British royalty, when creating three medals of merit in 1782.

Two years ago, purple became synonymous with elections in Iraq: people dipped a finger in purple dye to show they'd voted.

Sometimes purple's significance is incidental. In 1989, the apartheid government of South Africa sprayed protesters of all races with purple dye so they could find and assault them later.


The attack led to a slogan being written on the wall of a prominent building in the capital city of Cape Town: "The purple shall govern," an adaptation of a popular battle cry, "The people shall govern."

Purple also cultivated an aura as a counter-culture color. Perhaps that's why purple was quite popular during the psychedelic 1960s and '70s, as reflected in Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." Black lights popular in some college dorm rooms cast a purply glow.

"There's interest in the color because it's a more complex color," Smith said. "It's not just a straightforward red, blue or yellow."

In the 1980s, the color took center stage in Hollywood with two motion pictures: The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker's novel of the segregated South, and Purple Rain, a sultry musical that spawned a soundtrack and song of the same title by the pop star Prince. (A possible plum omen for the purple Ravens: Prince is the featured halftime entertainer for this year's Super Bowl.)

In 1999, the Rev. Jerry Falwell criticized the young children's show Teletubbies as promoting homosexuality to children. He contended that since the character "Tinky Winky" was purple, he must be gay, because the color is associated with gay pride.

"You wear purple when you want to make a bold statement, it evokes such strong emotion and it's been associated with sexuality," said Christine Chow, associate director of the Color Association of the United States in New York.


Chow said that European men have always viewed purple as a sexual color. "It assumes high self-esteem; probably a very sexual person who likes attention would wear it," she said.

Young people are drawn to the color. Harold and the Purple Crayon remains a beloved children's book a half-century after Crockett Johnson created it. And Barney and Friends, the children's show about a purple Tyrannosaurus Rex, became one of public television's biggest hits in the 1990s. Teen-age girls also buy plenty of purple stationery, teddy bears and hair accessories.

"Purple is a special color. It tends to be a color people love or hate," said Chow of the Color Association, a color forecaster that researches color trends used by graphic and interior designers, manufacturers and fashion stylists. "It's a rare color in nature."

Upon choosing the nickname that won out in a Sun naming contest, the Baltimore Ravens chose the color because it said it resembled the shine of the bird in sunlight. The color choice irritated some Minnesota Vikings fans, whose NFL team once monopolized the color purple.

Several other sports teams use it, however. Among them are Major League Baseball's Colorado Rockies, whose purple mountain logo was inspired by the lyrics in "America the Beautiful," the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings in men's professional basketball, the Sacramento Monarchs in women's pro basketball and college teams at Kansas State, Louisiana State and Northwestern.

As for fans of the local pro football team, they're anxious for a win Saturday.


Otherwise, some may suffer heartburn and need to turn to, what else, a little purple pill.

For the record

An article in the Today section yesterday misidentified a business in Waldorf that specializes in purple merchandise. The name of the business is Passion for Purple.