By Erin Moonyeen Haley
Call it heliotrope, call it mauve; call it lilac, or call it violet, but purple has a rich history that has made it the signature color of queens of every stature, hence its saturated appearance on the November 2022 issue of British Vogue.
Since its founding in 1892 by Arthur Baldwin Turnure Vogue has commemorated the death of three British monarchs: George V, George VI and now Elizabeth II. Each time it has used purple to mark the occasion, calling upon the color’s ubiquitous history and connections to royalty and majesty.
In 1936, Vogue honored George V with a monochromatic eggplant-colored display, while also insisting that the fashion magazine would still fill its pages with Francophile articles with such headings as "I Dress as I Please...from the Paris Collection", and "Radio Queen", a featurette that examined the listening habits of the modern woman. The editors insisted that life “goes on and Vogue, which reflects a varied and fundamental part of life, must go on too – the continuity of English kingship is a symbol of the continuity of life, which cannot be suspended by any catastrophe.”
The 1952 Vogue honored King George VI with a similar shade of plum.
The 2022 November issue of British Vogue carries on the tradition.
Even the December 1947 issue that marked Queen Elizabeth’s marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh featured a watercolor image complete with a telltale purple cushion.
Still, the color itself is hardly reserved for British royalty.
Cut to Paris, 1874: A coterie of artists - which included Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro - founded the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. as a response to their rejection from the annual Salon exhibit by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The group embraced violet as their official color.
According to Kassia St. Clair, author of The Secret Lives of Color (Penguin, 2016), one possibility as to why violet was chosen was that the impressionists were convinced that shadows were not merely black or gray, but suffused with the nuances of purple, a belief that had antagonists charging the sect with suffering from ‘violettomania’.
A deeper dive into history reveals that the Persian King Cyrus wore a purple tunic as his royal uniform while, in the Byzantine Empire, the Purple Chamber was reserved for empresses giving birth so that their offspring could be declared to have been born ‘in the purple’ and thus destined to rule.
Historically, England is home to numerous sumptuary laws that forbade the hoi polloi from donning the sumptuous color. Perhaps most strikingly was Edward IV’s passage of laws that restricted the common folk from wearing gold cloth, sable fur, and, of course, purple. Later, Elizabeth I would forbid anyone but those in her immediate circle from wearing the impressive shade.
Of course, the red carpet is no stranger to iconic purple gowns and queens-in-their-own-right. In 2010, Zoe Saldana attended the 82nd Annual Academy Awards wearing a Givenchy Couture gown complete with a sweeping ombré skirt with purples falling in silk and tulle bouquets of lilac, amethyst and sangria.
At the 2017, 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival, Elle Fanning wore a Sugar-Plum-Fairy-esq Rodarte gown, whose periwinkle tulle skirt and sweetheart neckline could have trumped any blue-blooded royal on any red carpet.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 2019, statuesque Rosie Huntington-Whiteley showed up at Paris Fashion Week’s YouTube cocktail party wearing a feather Attico lavender gown with a tiered skirt and plumed train that gave off serious Moulin Rouge vibes.
Also appearing in lavender and heather perfection in 2019 was Ava DuVernay, waltzing down the red carpet in a Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini cinched gown whose iridescent fabric shimmered and winked with the slightest of sparkles.
So even as British Vogue uses its November issue to pay homage to its former monarch, it is clear that purple - in all its pinkish-to-blueish incarnations - has long been a color for many Queens who have reigned among us mere mortals.