Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/31/24: Shades of Purple

Art by Midjourney

Though the color purple been democratized these days –- almost every mass-produced clothing item and stuffed toy is available in some shade of it –- it was once very rare and restricted to royalty. This was because its dye depended on a rare, arcane ingredient: the slimy secretions of the murex sea snail. For centuries, only Roman emperors, high-ranking Catholic clergy, and European kings and queens could afford to wear it, leading to the color’s long association with wealth and royalty. Commoners had to enjoy it in the skies of dawn or sunset or the colors of certain flowers; indigo and manganese provided alternate dyes. When synthetic dyes came on the scene in the 1800s, suddenly it was available to all.

Yet even then, the use of purple remained discrete. Victorians were fond of deep mulberry shades or muted lilacs, not the Tyrenian purple of the Romans which would have looked garish to them. It took the shocking paintings of the first modern artists and the Art Nouveau movement to restore purple to its former glory. Because of that, purple has always had an undercurrent of something bohemian and  “naughty” in it, an element by turns sensual, brash, and uncontrolled. It took the 1960s fashion explosion for it to break out into common use.

I remember drinking this.

Even so, it remained, and remains, a hue for those who consider themselves shocking or unique, even crazy. The color was immortalized forever in the Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze” and the rock groups Deep Purple and Moby Grape, giving it counterculture associations. A children’s powdered drink product of the time, Funny Face, featured a character called “Goofy Grape” who was a grape in a Napoleon hat, which referenced madness (at the time, delusions of grandeur, such as believing oneself to be Napoleon, was a cartoon staple as a shorthand for schizophrenia). In the 1969 debut of Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo, one character, Daphne, wore a shocking purple dress, which contrasted with her red hair. An earlier Hanna Barbera cartoon, The Herculoids, had all manner of purple monsters and aliens.

As the 1960s associations faded the color, as lavender, joined pink as a “girl color” for gender-themed toys and clothing in the 1980s and began to be associated with unicorns and dragons. Due to the influence of a much-circulated poem, elderly ladies began to dress in purple, often entirely so, to shout to the world “I’m here! I matter!” Lesbians adopted a light purple shade as a color of pride, as gay men had appropriated pink. Purple began to be added to Easter holiday shades and the black and orange palette of Halloween, joining poison green.

A trio of purple icons: Barney the Dinosaur (1992); Prince (1984); and Maleficent (1964.) Yes, she’s not fully dressed in purple, but the purple trim is an integral part of her character. Note the background has purple hues as well.

As a child, purple was always my favorite color. I had a fake-fur purple coat with silver buttons and a room painted light purple. At the age of six, I received a new pantsuit for Christmas consisting of bright purple polyester pants and a white and purple striped shirt. Any gift given to me, it had to be purple. I’ve long outgrown that phase of course, but purple still holds a soft place in my heart.

One of purple’s peculiarities is that there’s not a lot of words to describe it, and chances are those words that do are too obscure for some readers. Heliotrope and periwinkle, for example, or dozens of other flower names most people have never heard of. Thus, to come up with novel color names is a bit harder and that leads to another association with purple – purple prose.

So, following is a list of what I made. I’m rather fond of “Reggae Iris” and “Senate Necktie”… how about you?


Shades of Purple

Senate Necktie

Princely Pollen

Reggae Iris

Dusky Grape

King’s Orchid

Roman Banner

Prairie Nuptials

Poi Purple

Evening Tempered

Abyssal Blackberry

Rustic Plum

Come Drink the Wine

Hipster Purple


Plum Basket

Rhapsody in Aubergine

Russian Highlander

Plum Sorbet

Electric Thistle

Deep Foggy Sea

Royal Dusk

Berried Primrose

Cupcake Sprinkles

Earthy Raisin

Toy Unicorn


Tudor Purple

Amethyst Fields

Chinese Cobalt

Mauve and Melody

Cyberpunk Purple

Bruised Cognac


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