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Colour in Culture
Every colour conveys meaning , it can elicit strong emotional responses in us and enhance communication .The numerous ways colour is used around the world, is and has always been one of the most vital ways that cultures can communicate with each other .It can be used to identify a person’s religion, social status , profession, political affiliation , signify a time of year , festival ,ceremony, and be used to protect and give luck. It manifest itself on our clothes ,our bodies ,jewelry, buildings , shrines ,talisman and is even thrown as in the Hindu Holi festival, which welcomes spring and all colours are thrown to represent the beginning of new life .Many factors influence a colour’s meaning in different countries and cultures, including climate , religion, politics , gender and age. Although there are no absolutes, there are usually logical sources for the complex meanings of colours; which can arise from purely symbolic cultural association or be political, religious, historical or mythological associations.
Holi Festival, India.

Colour and association
In many cases a culture can be identified by a colour alone, as our association with it and the colour is so strong; for example the yellow robes of Buddhist monks. They chose to wear cloth dyed with saffron, as it was a colour traditionally worn by criminals, and therefore symbolizes humility and renunciation. Purple is a colour we instantly associate with the hierarchy in the Catholic Church or royalty, as it has always been worn by the powerful and wealthy, this is because the dye was rare and expensive and was traditionally extracted from fish or insects. In Elizabethan times it was forbidden for anyone other than immediate members of the royal family to wear purple. The white and ultra marine blue buildings of Greece are immediately recognizable to us, as again our association with the country and that particular colour is so strong.

Saffron robes of Buddhist Monks.

Purple robes worn in the Catholic Church

Brilliant blue rooftops in Greece.

Cultures interpretation of colour
Colour plays a key role in most cultures and in some the symbolic meaning or association can be the same or completely the opposite .In China and Russia red symbolizes luck and celebration, Hindu brides wear red as it represents purity and Ndembu warriors in Africa rub red pigment over their bodies during celebration as it symbolizes life. Ironically in other areas of Africa, red represents mourning and death and bodies are wrapped in red shrouds; hence the Red Cross that operate in these areas having to change their colours to white and green instead of white and red.

Nbembu warrior Hindu brides traditionally wear red.
In northern Africa and India green is symbolic of Islam and life, in Ireland it is symbolic of the whole country and in China it is the colour of an exorcism. In Iran blue is the colour of spirituality and heaven, in the Haitian religion of voodoo it signifies love .But for the Cherokee Indian it is the colour of defeat and trouble.

Haitian Voodoo shrine
In China, Yellow is associated with royalty and in previous centuries only the imperial family were allowed to wear yellow or live in buildings of that colour. Similarly for Columbians yellow also symbolize wealth (the closest colour to gold) and so on New Year’s Day yellow underwear is always worn to bring prosperity. In Egypt it is the colour of mourning and in Japan a colour of courage.

An Imperial palace China painted yellow, the colour of royalty.
For many western cultures white signifies purity ,holiness, weddings and celebration ; but for most eastern cultures it is the colour of mourning and death ,still linked to purity but for the souls of the dead and mourners at a funeral will wear white or brightly coloured clothes.

Mourners at an Indian funeral, always wear white or bright colours.
In some cultures a colour’s meaning can even change. In the western world up until the 1940’s pink was considered the appropriate colour for boys as it was closer to red (deemed more masculine) and blue appropriate for girls because of its association with delicacy and the Virgin Mary. In Belgium however it is still traditional for a baby boy to wear pink and girl blue.

Colour and identity
How a colour is worn can be purely symbolic or can be crucial as a form of identity, for example the North African nomads of the desert wear large turbans of a distinctive colour not only to protect them from the elements, but also to show which tribe they belong to. Palestinians use the colour of their turban to show political allegiance and in Rajasthan the turban is a symbol of prestige and social standing, and each caste has its own colour. Closer to home our ceremony of the trooping of the colour has its origins in the 17 th century where a regiments flag or colours were used as rallying points in battle , so that soldiers could identify their regiment easily and reform.

Rajasthani wearing a turban indicating his caste

Religion and Mythology
In religion and mythology colour plays a crucial role. In the Hindu religion, blue represents the fifth chakra, and the god Vishra has blue skin as he is the preserver of life and so associated with water. Shiva the destroyer has a blue neck because he swallowed poison. Yellow has always been a colour in Israel associated with Judaism, revived by the Nazis during the Second World War by making Jews wear yellow stars. In the Catholic religion pink is a symbol of joy and used in advent and lent ceremonies. In many African religions the correct colour of a candle used is important, as some have attractive and some repellent powers when used in ceremonies. The Native American Indians use the colours yellow, black, turquoise and white as they are the colours of the four sacred mountains.

The Hindu god Vishra
Colour can also have a purely symbolic meaning. In Thailand anyone born on a Friday may adopt the colour blue. In Japan there is a “green day” as it was the emperor Hiroshima’s favorite colour. Orange represents Hinduism as it is thought to symbolize fire and therefore inner transformation and the saffron stripe in the Indian flag represents courage and renunciation .In Greece and Turkey the evil eye symbol painted on doors, cars, airplanes and even horses is also known as the blue eye, as this is the colour predominantly used when it is depicted; because this colour represent peace and spirituality.

The Indian flag
Jewelry, talisman and amulets
Colour is also used in jewelry in many cultures to communicate, protect and bring luck. Zulu beadwork bracelets and amulets are used to convey very specific messages through the use of different bead colour combinations, expressing such things as love or giving warnings. The colour used in a talisman or amulet has always been significant. The Egyptians believed a materials colour alone was enough to endow its wearer with powers and capabilities and at the very least protect. For example green was symbolic of the crops, life and fertility and therefore worn as an amulet by women wanting to get pregnant or those who were ill; and mummies were always given red necklaces to satisfy the goddess Isis’ need for blood. The Greeks wore purple amethyst to symbolize penitence and mourning (but also believed it stopped you from getting drunk)

Zulu Beadwork
Why some colours are taboo in cultures
Of great interest also is colours are taboo in cultures. Black must be the colour that universally all cultures have negative connotations for – mourning , the dead, misfortune , old age etc…..But in all cultures we can find specific colours that are taboo, for instance yellow in western cultures is associated with cowardice and it is thought this originates from Judas often being depicted in paintings wearing yellow robes . If a bride wore white in India she would be inviting widowhood and unhappiness, as it is a colour reserved for the dead. In China red is a colour that must not be worn by mourners as it will bring misfortune on the deceased although normally it is considered a lucky colour.The early Christians banned the colour green as its association with paganism was so strong. In China during the Ming dynasty it was stipulated that men of prostitute’s families must wear a green turban and it was also a sign of punishment in law, therefore no man even today will wear a hat of this colour.

The Green Man Pagan Festival in Somerset Depiction of Judas Iscariot in yellow robes

For thousands of years colour has been a way of “instant Messaging’, a way of communicating with each other not only on the most basic level but also spiritually and emotionally too. For some cultures it plays a more significant and important role in their lives, but for all of us it is a crucial way in which we communicate.

Holi festival, India

Day of the dead festival Mexico, where marigold flower heads are laid on the pavements to attract the souls of the dead.

Day of the Dead Festival.

Native American Indian, with headdress made from dyed horsehair.

Buddhist and Day of the dead shrines

Village in India