From Lavender to Violet: The Lesbian Obsession with Purple

How many times, in the history of lesbian fashion, is purple on the periphery? Within this blog, it crops up repeatedly, an Easter egg for the eagle eyed. There’s the hand-made t-shirts of the Lavender Menace, lavender in colour as well as in lettering, at once an insult and a rebuttal. There’s the bright purple background of the labrys lesbian flag, a reflection of the colour’s popularity in lesbian feminist imagery. There’s the alleged lesbian dress codes of the 1920s, where not just monocles but “sprigs of violets” reigned supreme and signalled a woman’s love for other women. There is, of course, Sappho, who wrote of girls adorned in flowers, wreaths of violets worn as a crown or woven around their “slender necks”. 

Of all the shades of purple, lavender is that which is most associated with lesbians and the LGBTQ community as a whole. It’s more of a linguistic correlation than a fashion one, but it’s where I’ll begin nonetheless. In 1970, the Lavender Menace lesbian activist group stormed the stage of the Second Congress to Unite Women; they were responding to famous feminist Betty Friedan’s comment than lesbians were a “lavender menace” that would undermine the women’s movement. By this point, lavender was already cemented as shorthand for gay, queer, or different. The “Lavender Scare”, an anti-homosexual fear campaign in mid-century America, had irrevocably affected the lives of queer people in the country, but was only given its name in 2004 by historian David K. Johnson. The name had historical relevance, though: the term “lavender lads” acted as inspiration for the “Lavender Scare” title, coined (or maybe just popularised) by Senator Everett Dirksen to label and stigmatise homosexual men.1 

Fig 1: Botanical drawing of lavender, c. 1798. 

The history of “lavender” doesn’t stop there. In 1926, a biography of Abraham Lincoln described him as possessing “a streak of lavender”, implying homosexual tendencies (or perhaps bisexuality in a modern reading).2 Some argue that the “lavender streak” was in reference to effeminacy or vulnerability, but it remains that these are traits associated with implied queerness in men. Lavender as a term probably had its roots on the streets and in conversation rather than in sourceable texts, but the theme of purple springs up continually. Consider another association with male homosexuality; Oscar Wilde used the colour to describe love between men in 1900, writing about “purple hours” in a letter: 

How evil it is to buy love, and how evil to sell it! And yet what purple hours one can snatch from that grey slowly-moving thing we call Time! My mouth is twisted with kissing, and I feed on fevers.3

To Wilde, “purple hours” are a source of joy in a grey world. This premise is echoed by the times when purple – or indeed, lavender – has been claimed as a symbol of queer strength. An example of this is “The Lavender Song” (“Das Lila Lied”), an anthem of pride that emerged in 1920s Berlin. The full translated lyrics – an excerpt doesn’t do it justice – are:

What makes them think they have the right to say what God considers vice
What makes them think they have the right to keep us out of Paradise
They make our lives hell here on Earth
poisoning us with guilt and shame
If we resist, prison awaits so our love dares not speak its name
The crime is when love must hide
From now on we'll love with pride

CHORUS:
We're not afraid to be queer and different
if that means hell -- well, hell we'll take the chance
they're all so straight, uptight, upright and rigid
they march in lockstep we prefer to dance
We see a world of romance and of pleasure
All they can see is sheer banality
Lavender nights are our greatest treasure
where we can be just who we want to be

Round us all up, send us away
that's what you'd really like to do
But we're too strong, proud, unafraid
in fact we almost pity you
You act from fear, why should that be
What is it that you are frightened of
The way that we dress
The way that we meet
The fact that you cannot destroy our love
We're going to win our rights
to lavender days and nights4

Lavender crops up again and again in relation to joy, activism and reclamation, each instance building on those that came before. There’s the Lavender Menace, of course – important for their lesbian-specific use of “lavender” – but also the lavender rhinoceros, a symbol created only a few short years after the Lavender Menaces’ direct action. The lavender rhinoceros was designed by gay activists Bernie Toale and Daniel Thaxton as part of the Gay Media Action Advertising campaign in Boston in 1974. The colour was supposedly unrelated to lavender history; the artists said that “the color came from a mixture of pink and blue, a symbolic merger of the masculine and the feminine,” but I think that its previous associations with the LGBTQ community must have had at least a small influence. The rhino, incidentally, was chosen to represent the campaign because “it is a much maligned and misunderstood animal.”5 This reasoning echoes feelings from 50 years earlier in “the Lavender Song”, which asks “you act from fear, why should that be / what is it you are frightened of?”

Fig. 2: The papier-mȃché Lavender Rhinoceros that led Boston Pride in 1974. Via @bostonpride on Twitter, 2018.

Purple clearly has a welcoming home within queer culture and activism, lavender the most vocal among its shades. But what about fashion? How has purple translated from queer imagery, literature and music onto the clothed queer body – or more specifically, the clothed lesbian body? The short answer to this question is mostly through adornment. I use the word “adornment” rather than “accessorising” because it carries more meaning, and purple adornments were weighty as lesbian symbols, transforming and decorating an outfit. I’m talking, in particular, about violets.

Violets began their life as a lesbian adornment in the poetry of Sappho – and though there are arguments about Sappho’s sexuality, violets first became associated with lesbianism because of her poetry. Sappho’s poetry mostly survives in fragments, but still contains numerous references to violets, alongside purple hyacinths and crocuses. Often, the violets are worn. In a version of one fragment translated by Aaron Poochigan, Sappho writes:

You culled violets and roses, bloom and stem,
Often in spring and I looked on as you
Wove a bouquet into a diadem.6

In another translation of the same fragment by Josephine Balmer, the “wreaths of violets” and “twisted garlands” were placed around the girl’s “slender neck.”7 We can imagine the violets, worn by a possible lover of Sappho, twisted in her hair or thrown around her collar as a necklace. Either way, the girl is adorned, and Sappho preserves the image for eternity. 

Violets became purposeful lesbian adornment once again in early 20th century Paris, among lesbians who studied, referenced and recreated Sappho’s poetry and lifestyle. This community was dubbed ‘Paris Lesbos.’ Among these women was Renée Vivien, a poet from Britain who created a new life for herself in France. Her appreciation for violets came in part from Sappho, but was strengthened by their association with her first love – a woman named Violet Shillito. They were a motif in her poetry, but also in her wardrobe.

Fig. 3: Renée Vivien holding a bouquet of, perhaps, violets, c. 1900.

Renée’s violets were laden with meaning. She’s thought to have worn them pinned to her chest during her saddest moments, at times when she took too much laudanum and laid out in her rooms waiting to die.8 But they were not confined to her sorrow – her friend, the author Colette, described violets as part of an intellectual exchange between the two, writing that “Whenever she gave me any of her books, she always hid them under a bouquet of violets or a basket of fruit.”9 They were clearly a staple, and not just for Renée; other Parisian lesbians also wore them close to their heart. 

In 1926, Edouard Bourdet’s play The Captive opened on the stages of Paris and New York City. The Captive follows the story of Irène, a young woman in a false engagement with a man, but in love and in a real relationship with another woman. Throughout the play, her love interest leaves Irène gifts of violets. Their relationship ends in the final act, also narrated with an exchange of violets. As a sign of support and recognition, women in the Parisian audiences began to wear violets pinned to their lapels.10 This phenomenon was supposedly confined to Paris theatres rather than New York, where the production was shut down in 1927 due to complaints – however, the multiple New York showings attended by Mabel Hampton were thriving queer events. The audience was full of lesbians and gay men, who “applauded and applauded.”11 In Saidiya Hartman’s interpretation of Mabel’s life story, she suggests that “many [women in the audience of The Captive] wore violets pinned to their lapels and belts.”12 If it could happen in Paris Lesbos, why not in Harlem Renaissance New York?

The argument for lesbians wearing violets in New York and across America is strengthened by the well-recorded unfashionability of the flower after The Captive’s curtains closed. It seems logical that lesbians claiming of violets in response to the play, rather than only the play itself, would cement an association between lesbianism and violets. This wasn’t a short term effect, either. The play ran from 1926 to 1927, but in 1934 (7 years later!) Harper’s Bazaar reported that “Way back in the violet county last year they were still cursing this play as the knell of the violet industry.”13 I’d retrospectively apologise to the violet industry, but it was probably only lesbian customers that kept it going at all. 

Fig. 4: Cover of The Captive by Edouard Bourdet (New York: Bretano’s Publishers, 1926). 

Despite this long-running unfashionability, by 1938 violets were quite literally back in Vogue. A feature called ‘Fashion: The Purple Phase’ in the May 1938 edition of the magazine explained to readers that “Purple and violet are the night-blooming colors of the moment.” The article continues: “accompanying either dinner of afternoon dresses – flat little bunches of flowers that pass for a hat, bunches of carnations, hydrangeas, violets, snapdragons moored to the head with elastic.”14 Violets were once again being worn as adornment, but this time claimed back from the vocabulary of lesbian style. 

Modern lesbians, and more broadly sapphics, have taken up the violet as an adornment and a signal once again. Take for example Sappho’s Club on Etsy, which sells an enamel pin in the shape of a violet. It’s a symbol of affiliation – the “club” that it refers to is a worldwide community of lesbians and queer women. The shop has over 900 sales, and one of its enamel violets is pinned to a jacket lapel in my wardobe at this moment. A chain of violets, twisted together by the hands of lesbians generations apart, reaches across thousands of years. From the jackets and tote bags of the 21st century all the way back to the lovers of Sappho with their violet tiaras, our attire is reflected through purple-tinted glasses. 

When we look at the historical context of purple, it makes a strange sort of sense that it’s been taken up so lovingly by lesbians and other queer people. For much of the Earth’s history, purple has been a rare colour when it comes to dyes and clothing and was consequently expensive. But, it always appears in flowers. I think that it’s fitting that Sappho wrote of violets, hyacinths and crocuses: beauty, in this case in the form of the colour purple, was found, claimed and celebrated even when not typically available. To me, this is a metaphor for lesbian love through history – found and cherished despite the odds. Even if we look at times when purple has been the opposite of desirable, the colour still reflects us. For example, the shade of violet was designated for ceremonies of the dead by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, consequently becoming associated with death and avoided by ordinary people.15 Purple is a symbol of the “other,” the different or deviant. No wonder we’re drawn to it. 

From lavender to violet and all the shades between, purple has a lesbian legacy. I finish this article with a quote from poet Kate Chopin’s ‘To the Friend of My Youth: To Kitty’, written in 1900. In this poem, Chopin uses lilacs – yet another purple flower and a recurring image in her work – to illustrate her life-long love for another woman, Kitty Garesché.

That mystic garland which the spring did twine
Of scented lilac and new-blown rose
Faster than chains will hold my soul to thine
Thro’ joy, and grief, thro’ life -- unto its close.16

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter or support me on Patreon

Endnotes

1: Christabel Hastings, ‘How Lavender Became a Symbol of LGBTQ Resistance,’ CNN Style, 4th June 2020. Edition.cnn.com 

2: Hastings, ‘How Lavender Became a Symbol of LGBTQ Resistance.’

3: Quoted in Padraig Rooney, ‘Purple hours: Oscar Wilde in Rome,’ 2010, padraigrooney.com.

4: Quoted in Leila J. Rupp, Sapphistries, (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009) 161.

5: Quoted in Stephen Rutledge, ‘#PridePioneers: The Lavender Rhino, a 1970s Symbol of Pride,’ The WOW Report, 3rd June 2019. worldofwonder.net

6: Sappho, Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, trans. Aaron Poochigan (UK: Penguin Classics, 2009 [2015]), 25.

7: Sappho, Poems & Fragments, trans. Josephine Balmer (UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1992 [2014]), 46.

8: Janette Ayachi, ‘Jealous Love: Natalie Barney & Renée Vivien,’ Poetry School, 2015. poetryschool.com

9: Quoted in George Wickes, ‘A Natalie Barney Garland,’ The Paris Review, 61 (Spring 1975). Theparisreview.org. 

10: Sarah Prager, ‘Four Flowering Plants That Have Been Decidedly Queered,’ Jstor Daily, 29th Jan. 2020. daily.jstor.org.

11: Mabel Hampton, quoted in Joan Nestle, ‘The Bodies I Have Lived With: Keynote for 18th Lesbian Lives Conference, Brighton, England, 2011,’ Journal of Lesbian Studies 17.3-4 (2013): 225.

12: Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, (USA: Serpent’s Tail, 2019 [2021]) 328.

13: Quoted in Dawn B. Sova, Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas, (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2004) 39.

14: ‘Fashion: The Purple Phase,’ Vogue 91.10 (15th May 1938), 64.

15: Allen Tager, Eric Kirchner and Ellen Fedorovskaya, ‘Computational evidence of first extensive usage of violet in the 1860s,’ Color: Research and Application 46.5 (2021): 12.

16: Kate Chopin, ‘To The Friend of My Youth: To Kitty,’ (1900) accessed on americanliterature.com

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