Colours and Symbolism

Every inch of mankind’s existence is drenched in colours so much so that our own body is a tableau of colour based prejudices. Colours affect mood, thus, have also played a significant role in propelling the historical tenor into a new direction. Since the times immemorial, colour symbolism has been a cornerstone for the artistic voices.

From Monday blues to golden opportunities colours and symbolism have been inseparable from our lives. Not only, they inspire cultural beliefs and traditions but also keep one posted of dernier cri.

Cultural Difference in Colours

Every culture interprets colours in their way. From red being a colour of communism and new beginnings in China to being a symbol of evil in the Middle East is a simple example of how different cultures interpret colours.

Blue is often seen in logos of various banks in the western world and thus symbolise trust and authority, whereas in Latin America it has religious connotations being the colour of the Virgin Mary.

Colours and Symbolism: Van Eyck's painting

Further, green in the East symbolises fertility and new life. Van Eyck’s Renaissance masterpiece portrays Giovanni Arnolfini’s bride dressed in green as a symbol of her willingness to bear children.

In the west, purple is a royal colour, similar to the colour yellow in the east. In the United States, purple is a colour of honour and gallantry, represented by the Purple Heart which is awarded to soldiers. 

Girls and Boys Colours

In the age of social media, blooming with the gender reveal trends, pink and blue have gained a gendered reputation, to an awful extent that young boys donning pink are considered to be feminine.

In 1800, most of the infants were dressed in white and the gender differences weren’t so apparent, it was considered more important to distinguish children from adults than boys from girls.  

Moreover, it was always the other way around. The New York Times in the late 1800s published an article entitled ‘Baby’s First Wardrobe’, which advised parents that “pink is the colour for a boy and blue for a girl. Into the bargain, also until the end of World war I, the “Ladies’ Home Journal” stood by the rule of pink for the boys and blue for the girls. Pink is considered a version of masculine red was a preferable choice for boys whereas blue being a much more subtle and dainty colour along with its association with Virgin Mary’s cloak was preferred for girls.

Colours and Symbolism: Virgin Marry

Ohaguro & Missi

Teeth lacquering was a practice of dental adornment performed in Japan before the Meiji era, as well as in India by courtesans. The primary aim of teeth blackening was to prevent tooth decay which later caught on as a distinct sign of sexual maturity in women. 

Colours and Symbolism: Women from Akha Tribe
Another examples are women from Akha Tribe Thailand

In Japan, it was known as Ohaguro and was somewhat different from the Indian practice. Several scholars such as the British naturalist Alcock opines that it was aimed at maintaining chastity and preventing extramarital affairs by making women intentionally unattractive. On the contrary Japanese social scientist, Kyouji Watanabe debunks the theory, stating that Japanese women were given enough sexual and social liberties until the time of Ohaguro.

Teeth lacquering or Missi became a life cycle event of the courtesans concerning the attainment of sexual maturity and was soon absorbed as a ceremony, which was performed by courtesans of Awadh & deredar tawaifs of Lucknow. In his research paper “The Missi-Stained Finger-Tip of the Fair: A Cultural History of Teeth and Gum Blackening in South Asia,” Thomas Zumbrioch suggests that blackening of teeth was often performed as an embellishment. Women in the 19th century continued the tradition of Missi, but with changing times and with the emphasis on white teeth, the practice came to an end.

Tall, Dark and Handsome

The hardwired ideas like tall dark and handsome, a definitive of a charming male in the popular vocabulary,  was introduced via pulp fiction novels in 1900.

But ever came to wonder what the term “dark” suggested?

I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases defines “tall, dark and handsome” as having been “used to refer to Rudolph Valentino.

Colours and Symbolism: Tall, Dark and Handsome

In 1900, the phrase came to describe an attractive white man and was accepted as a manifestation of their masculinity. Eventually, it led to the  “tall, dark and handsome” trope being used to allude the swooning Hollywood leads.

But with recent trends of “tall, fair & debonair” the dark seems to be losing its charm.

Colour of Mourning

The custom of black mourning clothes in the West dates back to the Roman Empire when the relatives of the departed would don a dark-coloured toga called toga pulla. This norm endured throughout the Middle Ages in England, as women were required to accept black caps and veils with their husband’s demise. A period of ‘half-mourning’ as suggested, was after a year of being widowed, Victorian women were allowed to incorporate purple and grey in their mourning threads.

  • Colours and Symbolism
  • Colours and Symbolism

In Europe however, widows in mourning wore white, also the French queens before the French Revolution wore white while in mourning. In many Asian countries such as India, white is the colour of death and mourning because it symbolises purity.

Moreover, in Egypt, both yellow and gold are colours connected to death and mourning since they were used to decorate the mummy & sarcophagus and tombs before going to the afterlife. Whereas in Brazil purple is the colour of mourning. In the Lutheran church, purple is also the colour of mourning.

Colour Symbolism in Literature

Colour and Symbolism: Literature

From fairy tales weaving colour symbolism, making use of phrases -as white as snow or as red as blood, to 12th-century French poets, who stuck to the exclusive use of 7 colours alongside Gothic literature scribbling colours into both positive and negative emotions. We find various instances of symbolism in poetry as well as narratives with colours being used to express innumerable sentiments.

Red colour often known for inspiring passion as well as aggression and danger is used in Jane Eyre, for when she is locked in a red room she faints out of fear of a ghost. Similarly Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry the Raven makes use of the colour black in the form of a blackbird to symbolise death alongside The Great Gatsby where again a  black wheel is used to represent mourning. In addition to the use of colour black, Scott. J. Fitzgerald uses colour symbolism such as green light to represent the hopes and the American dream of Gatsby whereas yellow is used as a symbol of luxury and it also signifies greed when the narrator calls Daisy a golden girl. Moreover, in context to Daisy the colour blue is used to bring to light the atmosphere of gloom.


Artists like Pablo Picasso made pronounced use of blue tones in their artworks, making justice with their trauma and the sense of depression on canvas. This period with the dominant use of blue in his paintings is also known as the ‘Blue Period’.

Moreover, the representation of Judas in a yellow garb in the post-classical period encouraged the association of colour yellow with betrayal. 

Colour and Symbolism: The Potato Eaters By Van Gogh
The Potato Eaters by Van Gogh

Van Gogh used a lot of brown to set a sombre and depressed mood in the famous painting The Potato Eaters. 


Colours are often used in language to aid the expression of various emotions. The term tickled pink, meaning ‘to be delighted’ appeared for the first time in 1922 alluding to one’s face turning pink with laughter when someone is tickled. 

The origin of the idiom ‘green with envy’ is believed to have been coined by William Shakespeare himself in Othello.

Colour of Royalty 

Colour and Symbolism: King George VI
King George VI

One reason purple became the colour for royalty was that its production costed a fortune. The word ‘purple’ in modern English comes from the Latin ‘purpura‘, and that from the Greek ‘porphura’, one of the names for the sea snail based on its colour. 

A Phoenician recipe for Tyrian purple, dated 1600 BC, involved crushing the glands of murex sea snails: 12,000 were required to make a single gram of the stuff. The fluid was mixed with wood, ash and urine, and then fermented. 

The Persian king Cyrus adopted a purple tunic as his royal uniform, and some Roman emperors such as Nero forbid their citizens from wearing purple clothing under penalty of death.

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