The Prideful Color of Lavender
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
The color lavender had been long associated with elegance, sophistication, beauty, and femininity. Yet, it is a color that means so much more.
For the LGBTQ+ community, it also represent desire, protest, pain, and liberty. It is a color of pride in the face the oppression and negativity and of genuine hope for change. The color lavender is from the mixture of the colors pink and blue (usually symbolizing femininity and masculinity), making it the perfect color to represent the community.
Lavender is femininity and desire.
In western cultures, one of the earliest ways that the color lavender was initially used was as a symbol of longing. In the 7th century BC, the poet Sappho wrote her famed poem that tells the story of her desire for a younger woman with "violet tiaras". Afterwards, there were many instances that the LGBTQ+ community used shades of purple as a color that represented them.
Though lavender was not a hugely popular color, it was usually only worn by elite women, until the invention of synthetic dye in the 19th century that made it more accessible. In the mid-19th century, cultural historian and author of "The Secret Lives of Colour", Kassia St Clair, explained how it was a well loved color for both genders.
"In the mid-19th century it was a fashionable color, and men would pair lavender moleskin or doe-skin trousers with blue waistcoats or claret-colored coats without anyone batting an eye."
- Kassia St Clair
In an illustration from 1833 in France, a woman is pictured wearing a floral dress with purple velvet inserts. A man wears a formal suit, with lavender accents.Credit: De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images
It was not until the end of the 19th century that the public began fulling linking the color lavender to homosexulatity.
Lavender is protest and pain.
As awareness and the number of known members of the LGBTQ community grew, public fear also grew, beginning a dark era in the 1930s. The purplish hue became something that people would use to taunt gay men in America during that time, partly because of the writing of Carl Sandburg. In his biography of Abraham Lincoln, he said that one of the president's early male friendships contained a
"streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets,"
Amplified by the McCarthy era, president Eisenhower signed the Executive Order 10450, creating what is known as "The Lavender Scare," parallel to "The Red Scare." Thus began a witch hunt that paid a toll on the lives of LGBTQ+ men and women for the next few decades. Due to the will of the country to purge LGBTQ+ members from the federal government, about 5,000 federal agency employees lost their jobs.
As a result of this discrimination, the community pushed back. In 1969, lavender armbands and sashes were distributed to hundreds that contributed to the "gay power" march from Washington Square Park to Stonewall Inn in New York. Similar protests arose when Betty Friedan, the president of the National Organization for Women that year, discouraged lesbian membership because she saw them as a threat to the feminist movement, labeling protests a "Lavender Menace".
Still, this did not stop people from voicing their rights; two Boston artists Daniel Thaxton and Bernie Toale created a lavender rhino for a public ad campaign held by the Gay Media Action-Advertising. As a co-founder of Gay Media Action, Toale voiced why they used a lavender rhino to represent the movement, explaining,
“it is a much maligned and misunderstood animal”.
- Bernie Toale
This 1974 article in The Boston Globe detailed the controversy of the Lavender Rhino before Boston Pride of that year.
Press packets were sent in the hope of drumming up enough public support to run the ad on the MBTA in time for Boston's Pride March. After MBTA decided to increase the cost of running the ads, they were met with public outcry; people wore the Lavendar Rhino to the march and pushed a life-size Lavendar Rhino, making the rhino a symbol of resistance and protest. Gay Media Action received enough donations to begin running the ads after the march, which marked a step of progression towards the society we know today.
These pictures show the papier-mâché Lavender Rhino that marchers pushed along the route of Boston Pride in 1974.
Lavender is liberty, hope, and pride.
Gradually gaining acceptance, the LGBTQ+ community is now more accepted than ever before. The use of the color lavender in fashion illustrates clearly how our society's ideals have progressed over the last few decades.
On runways, designers experimented with the color while celebrities wear outfits, confidently endorsing the unique hue. During the 2019 Met Gala, some celebrities celebrated the LBGTQ community by donning the color lavender. Hamish Bowles, editor-at-large of American Vogue, arrived at the event in a fabulous lavender Maison Margiela Artisanal look, while Lena Waithe chose a modest yet elegant lavender Pyer Moss suit to make a proud statement. Stitched with lyrics of songs sung by Diana Ross and Sylvester, across the back Waithe's suit proclaimed proudly,
"Black Drag Queens Invented Camp",
showing how evidently our society has begun entering a new era: a time of understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. It is important to remember that the community still faces issues that we must continue to solve together. Artists can play a huge role in creating change, as they did through the color lavender.
Lena Waithe and Kerby Jean-Raymond arrive for the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019 in New York.Credit: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images