How Lavender Became a Symbol of LGBTQ ResistanceHistorians in the News
tags: Victorian era, LGBTQ history, fashion history
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.
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 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.
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