In Russia, the word for red, krasnyj, is related to the word for beautiful, krasivyj. So Moscow’s Red Square is the beautiful square! In Czech, too, krásný means beautiful, and, in Swedish up until the nineteenth century, röd meant not only ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’, but also something to be coveted. In German, the word Zauber, meaning magic, can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon teafor, meaning ‘red ochre’. Red is a customary wedding colour for Greek, Albanian, Armenian and Chinese brides, and, of course, let’s not forget the red, red rose, which is all about love and passion.
In Japan, yellow signifies courage: during the 1357 War of Dynasty, each warrior wore a yellow chrysanthemum as a pledge of courage. In Greek mythology, yellow meant divine wisdom: the Greek sun god, Helios, wore a yellow robe and rode in a golden horse-drawn chariot across the skies. Hindu culture says that yellow is auspicious, and some business people choose yellow-covered accounts books to see if the luck will rub off on their annual profits. In China, the colour yellow is said to bring health – it corresponds in Traditional Chinese Medicine with the spleen.
Cyan has traditionally been considered blue, and The Blue Flower was the symbol of German 19th century Romanticism, thanks to Novalis’s novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen. It stood for desire and love. Likewise, old English custom dictates that a bride must wear blue ribbons on her wedding gown, a blue sapphire in her wedding ring, and include blue speedwell flowers in her wedding bouquet – all because blue is said to represent fidelity.
In antiquity, purple dye was very expensive to manufacture, so it’s had something of a fetish value in fashion through the centuries. Byzantine empresses gave birth in the Purple Chamber. Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Augustus both decreed that only the Emperor could wear purple. Convenient for them, eh? Nero took it a step further – in his reign, the wearing or even the sale of purple carried the death penalty. So – exclusive, dangerous and more than a little desirable? Nice!
From the little black dress to the black-tie function, black’s always been sophisticated. In Japan, it signifies experience (rather than white’s naivete), and in China’s Tang dynasty, the best-regarded painters worked with black ink rather than ‘vulgar’ colours. In Feng Shui, black means modernity, elegance and power – exactly what you want from a smartphone!
From the robes allegedly worn by Jesus Christ as well as Cistercian, Capuchin, Franciscan, Taoist and some Buddhist monks, to the undyed wool worn by countless peasants, grey’s got a pedigree that whispers modestly and solemnity. In Western fashion, grey suits were sported by both Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, and, in 1965, US President Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office in an Oxford grey business suit. Talk about respectability…
It’s not just for weddings: in ancient Egypt, white stood for omnipotence as well as purity, and the holy city of Memphis (the ruins of which can be seen south of Cairo) was named after its ‘white walls’. In China, white is linked to the feminine principle (the yin to black’s yang), and in India, it’s the colour of Brahmins, the priestly caste, and implies detachment and serenity. For the semi-nomadic Bedouins, though, it’s a little more lively: white, associated with milk, is their colour for gratitude, joy, good fortune and fertility.
Image credit: Capture Queen