Visual Culture

Hillary Clinton’s Purple Lapels Demonstrate the Power of Color

Alexxa Gotthardt
Nov 10, 2016 11:01PM

Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

I remember trying to blend the color purple in grade school, dropping dollops of blue and red paint onto a piece of paper, then folding them slowly together so I could watch the two distinct colors swirl into one. It was like magic. I was able to fuse two disparate elements to make something new, beautiful, and strong.

That feeling flooded back yesterday, when Hillary Clinton took the podium for her concession speech, wearing one of her now-famous pantsuits, this one accented with a brilliant purple. It’s a deep, rich color that has held a host of meanings throughout history. It’s been associated with royalty (the Ancient Greek ruler Alexander the Great favored it in a time when purple dye was worth more than its weight in gold), dignity (the suffragettes wore it, along with white for purity and green for hope), and mourning (it’s the color widows wear in Thailand and Brazil). But judging from the content of her address, which hinged on a thesis of bipartisanship and solidarity, Clinton wore it to communicate a different message—unity.

Color has long been a powerful tool in U.S. politics, stretching back to the Civil War, when blue represented the Union and gray the Confederacy. But it wasn’t until the dawn of color television that America began to fracture the color scheme of its national flag to represent its partisan factions: the chief political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. In 1976, NBC became the first network to use the now-ubiquitous illuminated map to track an election night, one that pitted Republican president Gerald Ford against his democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter. States where Ford took the lead turned blue, while Carter’s were saturated in red (opposite of today’s scheme).

For some years, confusingly, different networks used different palettes. But during the heated 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, news outlets agreed on the color key we know today: red for Republicans, blue for Democrats. Because of that year’s contested results, the blue and red maps remained on television screens across the country for five whole weeks after November 7th, in turn searing the partisan vernacular of “blue states” versus “red states” into the American lexicon.

This year’s race, which has been described as the most divisive in recent history, was defined in large part by president elect Donald Trump’s xenophobic and racist rhetoric—not to mention the national media’s focus on his inflammatory comments. And this past Tuesday, as screens across the country glowed red and blue while election results rolled in, some went purple, too. In most cases, the color represented a state where Trump and Clinton were neck and neck. But those purple areas didn’t remain so for long—each turned blue or red before the night was over. The next morning, footage of Trump’s acceptance speech took the place of the red- and blue-dotted maps; in his speech, he’s wearing a bright red tie, a little flash of color that could be taken as a symbol of his sharply partisan brand of politics.

So what’s the significance of Hillary’s purple lapels, and why are people talking about them? The Clinton campaign slogan that really stuck throughout this election cycle was the phrase “Stronger Together.” It manifested as a hashtag that decorated Twitter, Facebook, and T-shirts, the foil to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” And it represented Clinton’s bid—one begun by President Obama—for a divided country to unite peacefully.

“I count my blessings every single day that I am an American,” Clinton said during her concession speech, “and I still believe, as deeply as I ever have, that if we stand together and work together with respect for our differences, strengthen our convictions, and love for this nation, our best days are still ahead of us. Because, you know, I believe we are stronger together and we will go forward together.”

As she uttered the words, viewers also took in the burst of purple along the edges of her suit. Bill, standing by her side, wore a purple tie. Perhaps those watching registered the color’s symbolism, grounded in its blend of blue and red. But even if they didn’t, in that moment—and now across YouTube and Facebook—Clinton’s call for unity was inexorably linked to the color purple.

Alexxa Gotthardt
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019