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How lavender became a symbol of LGBTQ resistance

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Written by Christobel Hastings, CNN

Every year, as summer beckons, Pride month arrives in a burst of color. Around the world, rainbow flags fly high and revelers turn their faces proudly towards the sky.

The multicolored flag has united the LGBTQ community for over 40 years, and though it remains a universal symbol of pride, liberation didn’t always come in vibrant technicolor.

In fact lavender — a subtle hue that shifts between light pinkish purples, and gray and blueish tones — has had, despite its whimsical nature, its own historical significance in representing resistance and power.

The making of a color trend

Like many aspects of queer culture, it’s not surprising that lavender’s unique color symbolism often skirts under the radar, especially when it comes to mainstream society.

In Western culture it started life as a color of desire, thanks to the lyric genius of 7th century BC poet Sappho, whose papyrus fragments told of her erotic predilections for younger women with “violet tiaras.” Fast forward a few centuries, and in the 1920s, violets were still drawing together members of the lesbian community, who gifted the delicate flowers as an expression of sapphic interest.

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.

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 wasn’t until the 19th century — with the accidental invention of a purple synthetic dye — that the color would become popular in fashion. “Synthetic dyes allowed ordinary people to wear this special color,” explained cultural historian and author of “The Secret Lives of Colour” Kassia St Clair. “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.”
Towards the end of the 19th century, however, the public began linking lavender with homosexuality. Aestheticism, a European arts movement was founded, eschewing Victorian wholesomeness and the perceived ugliness of the industrial age, in favor of beauty, passion and “art for art’s sake.”

Newspapers denounced Aesthetes as effeminate, not least one of the prominent leaders of the movement, Oscar Wilde, who frequently reminisced about his “purple hours” spent with rent boys, and provoked a moral scandal with the homoerotic themes in “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

The fight for visibility

The 1930s marked the start of a dark period when lavender was cruelly lexicalized. Gay men in America were taunted for possessing a “dash” or “streak” of lavender, thanks in large part to Abraham Lincoln’s biographer Carl Sandburg, who described one of the president’s early male friendships as containing a “streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets.”

During the McCarthy era, there was state-sanctioned discrimination when president Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which became part of a national witch-hunt to purge homosexual men and women from the federal government. Dubbed “The Lavender Scare” by historian David K. Johnson, the suffocating climate of fear and suspicion subsequently led to around 5,000 federal agency employees losing their jobs on the basis of their sexuality.

A group of women, one dressed as Greek poet Sappho, gather on the National Mall before the Equal Rights Amendment March.

A group of women, one dressed as Greek poet Sappho, gather on the National Mall before the Equal Rights Amendment March. Credit: Ann E. Zelle/Getty Images

In 1969, the color came to symbolize empowerment. Lavender sashes and armbands were distributed to a crowd of hundreds in a “gay power” march from Washington Square Park to Stonewall Inn in New York, to commemorate the Stonewall riots that had just taken place a month before.

It was also the year president of the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan, denounced the lesbian membership she believed would threaten the feminist movement as a “Lavender Menace.” This time, there was backlash. At the 1970 Second Congress to Unite Women, a group of radical activists wearing hand-dyed purple T-shirts printed with the words “Lavender Menace” stormed the stage and kickstarted a conversation on the very topic Friedan had struggled to suppress: lesbianism.

Lavender, however, can’t always be neatly defined in terms of pain or protest.

Throughout history, there are endless references to its subversive possibilities, allowing LGBTQ people to express the full range of their humanity. Take the late actor and writer Quentin Crisp, whose lavender tresses were a way of visually disrupting gender norms, right up until his 90th birthday, when he held a party complete with lavender “napkins, the plates and the frosting on the cake.”

English writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp at New York's Gay Pride parade in June 1982.

English writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp at New York’s Gay Pride parade in June 1982. Credit: Barbara Alper/Getty Images

British filmmaker, artist and author Derek Jarman, meanwhile, nurtured the flower among the “pharmacopoeia” of medicinal plants at Prospect Cottage, his fittingly boundary-free oasis in Dungeness, southern England. He also cited violet, mallow (mauve) and lavender among the “colours of Eden” missing from God’s rainbow in his work “Chroma: A Book of Colour.” Then, of course, there’s Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag, which he lovingly re-worked in 2017 with a lavender stripe to “represent diversity in the era of Trump.”

Living color

These days, the color is being worn with confidence, nonchalance and something that feels like defiance; a nod, perhaps, to the radical protest spirit of the ’70s. “Most simplistically, fashion tends to be cyclical, so colors that haven’t been in the public eye for a while are often picked up and reinterpreted by designers,” said St Clair. “The interlude allows the designers to reinvigorate them: they feel fresh all over again.”

A model presents a creation by Loewe during the Women's Spring-Summer 2020 Ready-to-Wear collection fashion show in Paris on September 27, 2019.

A model presents a creation by Loewe during the Women’s Spring-Summer 2020 Ready-to-Wear collection fashion show in Paris on September 27, 2019. Credit: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

The color, St Clair said, has been buoyed by the milestones achieved by the LGBTQ community in recent years, including some country’s moves to legalize same-sex marriage, and in the US, gay mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential run and last year’s Met Gala theme of “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” The “attacks on gay and transgender civil rights by the current administration,” she added, has also increased the spotlight on the community, encouraging them “to rally around each other and explore and celebrate identifying symbols that have been important to them in the past.”

Perhaps it’s why we’re seeing the color’s resurgence on the spring-summer 2020 catwalks — in the form of Loewe’s 17th century-inspired lace dresses, Max Mara’s soft pastel suiting, Valentino’s tiered minidresses, and a dress fashioned entirely from chiffon flowers at Marc Jacobs. Or more explicitly celebrated by editor-at-large of American Vogue Hamish Bowles in his flamboyant Maison Margiela Artisanal ensemble at the 2019 Met Gala. If there’s one image that shows LGBTQ people that there is a joyous life out there, it’s surely Bowles flicking his fringe-lined cape with campish flair.

Hamish Bowles attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019 in New York.

Hamish Bowles attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019 in New York. Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

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.

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

At that same event, Lena Waithe chose a lavender Pyer Moss suit to make a defiant political statement. Amid the sea of glitter and sequins, Waithe stood proud, the stripes of her ensemble stitched with the lyrics of songs sung by Diana Ross and Sylvester, buttoned with the faces of camp pioneers, and emblazoned across the back, a bold message: “Black Drag Queens Inventend (sic) Camp.” Standing on the steps of a powerful institution, Waithe seemed to herald a new era for the LGBTQ community; one in which people can now live their truth in full color.
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