Violet delights: A queer history of purple

Our LGBTQ+ Working Group have added a series of Lavender Labels to the Scottish Design Galleries that explore queer stories connected to some of our objects. But why lavender? One of our advisors Keava McMillan delves into the queer history of purple to explore the meanings this colour holds for the LGBTQ+ community.

Written by: Keava McMillan

In his book Chroma (1993) the artist Derek Jarman writes about colour. At the end of his life, with his eyesight failing, he imagines purple as a transgressive colour.

“Purple is passionate, maybe violet becomes a little bolder and ***** pink into purple. Sweet lavender blushes and watches.”

By the time he conjures his orgy of purples in the 1990’s, purple had a clear queer heritage. Stripes of purple have flashed across the designs of queer flags from Gilbert Baker’s 1978 rainbow flag to Daniel Quasar’s 21st century progress flag, with the idea of purple as overlapping pink/red and blue representing a blurring of genders in bi and trans flags. Looking back at the messy, majestic history of queer purples gives a sense of why the LGBTQ+ Working Group chose to explore Scottish design history through a lavender lens.

Vibrant variations of purple were notoriously difficult to pin down outside of nature without extinguishing an entire species of shellfish. Reserved for the obscenely rich until the 19th century, these glorious colours retained an aura of mystery after synthetic dyes made them more accessible and fashionable. For those in the know, the colour purple also had a queer tint.

Garlands, glades, and crowns of purple blooms feature in surviving fragments from the 7th century Lesbian poet Sappho. Her violets seemed to capture the queer imagination. In the 19th century poets conjured the world they glimpsed in the remaining scraps of Sappho’s work. Some, like Alfred Douglas (famous for loving and turning on Oscar Wilde) drew on Sappho’s floral legacy to write about the “love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde himself sported a sunflower or a green carnation as his flower of choice but after his release from prison he found comfort in the “purple nights” he spent with other men.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Natalie Clifford Barney’s salons fostered the creativity of a generation of women. One of her partners, Renée Vivien, wrote haunted sapphic poems which earned her the title “Muse of Violets.” When Radclyffe Hall visited Paris in 1926, the itinerary included a trip to the cemetery to place violets on Vivien’s grave. On that same trip Hall saw a play called The Captive by Edouard Bourdet about an unhappy romance between two women. The older woman does not appear on the stage, but her presence is made known through gifts of violets. When the play was staged in New York it was quickly shut down by the authorities. It was popular with queer audiences (including the Harlem Renaissance performer Mabel Hampton) but unpopular with the violet industry which saw their profits wilt.

The flower trade in Europe was less menaced by lesbians. On the cabaret stages of 1920’s Berlin The Lavender Song was a defiant (and catchy) anthem that refused to apologise for the pleasures of queer “lavender nights.” It played in lesbian and trans social clubs like Lotte Hahm’s Violetta club. On a more mainstream stage, an unknown Marlene Dietrich joined cabaret star Margo Lion on stage to sing a duet about how happy she was with her special girlfriend. Just in case the audience did not get the message, both singers sported posies of violets on their lapels.

In the 20th century, lavenders and lilacs replaced the heavy mauves and decadent purples of the previous generations. These lighter colours developed a queer hue as they became more fashionable with women and lavender became a slang term for a gay man.

By the late 1940’s newspapers were casually mentioning the “lavender set” as a dismissive shorthand for groups of queer men. The phrase was used so often during the persecution of queer workers by the US government that the period was later called the Lavender Scare. Even in the 1950’s some resisted this appropriation of lavender and used it as a term of affection and community, like the Lavender Brotherhood who gathered around the writer Dorothy Dean. The reclaiming was clearer after the Stonewall riots when a 1969 gay power demonstration formed a “purple column” of protesters wearing lavender ribbons and marching under a lavender banner.

Betty Friedan sought to exclude lesbians from the women’s liberation movement using the phrase “lavender menace.” A group of lesbians weaponised the insult by proudly wearing it on handprinted shirts when they disrupted a major event by storming the stage, distributing their manifesto, and turning the event into a dialogue with the audience. Their action reached beyond the US, with the first queer bookshop in Scotland named in their honour. Purples continued to appear in queer culture throughout the 1970’s from activist groups like the Lavender Panthers who patrolled San Francisco led by an armed preacher to the surprising appearance of a giant lavender rhinoceros at Boston’s pride parade.

Purple’s queer power waned when warmer pinks and reds became a visual rallying point for AIDS activism. Queer literature, from the fields in Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple to the violets tended in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, kept the association alive. In the 1990’s the colour returned with the Lesbian Avengers who handed out lavender balloons during a school protest. Queen Joan Jett-Blakk ran for president of the USA with the catchy slogan “Lick Bush in '92” and a campaign that promised to abolish national debt and appoint Dykes on Bikes as national security. Redecorating and renaming the presidential residence the Lavender House was also a priority.

In the 21st century purple’s queerness is in question with groups appropriating suffragette colours in their campaign to exclude transgender women. In the 1970’s the Lavender Menace resisted a similar attempt to exclude lesbian women. Luckily, in Scotland their namesake is back with the Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive which draws on the queer past to preserve an inclusive queer future.

Find out more about our LGBTQ+ Working Group.