We Asked a Fashion Historian Why Hillary Wore Purple

Purple has many connotations, but art and fashion historian Julia Long believes Hillary was making a much-needed statement about bringing the country together

(Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

(Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

To deliver her hugely inspiring concession speech today, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wore a resplendent Ralph Lauren charcoal gray pantsuit with bright purple lapels and a matching silk blouse.

And those colours are extremely significant. Throughout her hard-fought campaign, Hillary has used fashion to make impactful statements in ways often more powerful than words.

There was her sublime tailored all-white ensemble that she wore to accept the Democratic party’s nomination for presidency—a nod to the suffragette movement from more than 100 years ago, when women marched and protested in all-white dresses and capes for the right to vote. Then there was the trio of colours, red, white and blue, that she donned for each of the three debates—colours emblematic of the American flag, all subtly at play as she eviscerated Donald Trump and shimmied her way into many undecided voters’ hearts.

To better understand Hillary’s choice today, FLARE reached out to art and fashion historian Julia Long. Here, she offers some unique perspectives about the symbolism of Hillary’s concession speech outfit.

What’s the historical significance of the colour purple?

Purple has long been a highly prized colour, due in large part because it was a dye that was so difficult and expensive to produce. For centuries, it could only be made naturally from the mucous of sea snails, and a huge amount was required to produce a tiny bit of dye. Because of its expense and scarcity, it was only readily available to the wealthy and royalty, to a point that the wearing of purple was restricted to that class of people for centuries in sumptuary laws (on penalty of death!). Roman senators wore purple stripes on their togas, but only the Emperor could wear an entirely purple cape.

Purple also has religious significance, particularly in the Christian church, symbolizing penitence, faith, and mourning. Like many things in 19th century England, the process of mourning was dictated by precise rules, particularly for women. Black was reserved almost exclusively for mourning, and was worn for the ‘first stage,’ lasting for at least a year. In total, a widow would mourn for two-and-a-half years. In the last six months, she could go into ‘half-mourning,’ where colours like gray and purple could be slowly introduced.

By the mid-19th century, the creation of a much cheaper synthetic purple dye started to chip away at the exclusivity of the colour. In 1908, the Women’s Social and Political Union adopted green, white, and purple as the official colours of the suffragette movement. By incorporating these colours into their wardrobes, women could unobtrusively communicate their goals and find like-minded allies.

Why do you think Hillary specifically went with this colour pairing? 

Purple has so many connotations, but my instinct is that Hillary was trying to bring the country together with a hopeful perspective. Like the suffragettes, she’s going to keep fighting, not back down and disappear. Because purple and grey were traditionally worn in only the last stages of mourning, it signified a return to normalcy and society. It pointed to moving forward and making peace with the past, which was very much the tone of Hillary’s concession speech.

What kind of statement do you think Hillary was trying to make? 

Purple is a combination of red and blue, traditionally associated with the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. In addition to the potential historical influences, I think Hillary was making a new statement about coming together and creating a stronger America, starting today.

Can you talk to us a bit more about the significance of historical fashion statements in today’s world?

Many people think that fashion is a frivolous waste of time, unworthy of due attention. But fashion has for thousands of years been a form of expression, particularly for marginalized and disenfranchised populations, and perhaps especially for women.

Because it has been considered worthless by many of those in power, fashion has been able to command a significant, if subversive, role in societies. By wearing certain brooches, hats, or colours, those in the know could identify each other and, bit by bit, work together to effect real change. Even today, when rules about what we can and cannot wear are more relaxed than they have been in the past, most people are able to recognize symbolism in colours. This is why royal families persist in using purple in their wardrobes, homes and public statements; because that connotation is in our minds. It just goes to show that there are definite benefits to paying attention to history!

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