The image of rulersis crucial for public support, but vital to the machinations of anybody who is politically inclined. Political symbols can be used to claim countries, as Edward III did in 1340 when he altered the Royal Arms of England. Or, political symbols can shepherd a nation through wartime, as Winston Churchill is said to have done with his famous V sign during the Second World War.
By the same token, certain colours, have been reserved as demarcations of political power, with the colour purple having been prized for its association with power, wealth, and royalty for hundreds of years.Purple’s elite status stems from the rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce it in the Phoenician city of Tyre, now in modern-day Lebanon. Fabric traders obtained the dye from a small mollusc that was only found in the Tyre region of the Mediterranean Sea and about 9,000 molluscs were needed to create just one gram of Tyrian purple in a costly, labour-intensive process; only wealthy elites could afford to buy and wear the colour.
The toga praetexta, a white toga with a broad purple strip on its border, traditionally worn by the Kings of Rome and later on by the political elite,is particularly prominently featured in popular culture representations of the period.In HBO’s Rome, Caesar frets over choosing the kind of outfit that will ‘suggest purple without actually wearing it’.Some few hundred years later the dye became so expensive that even the elite couldn’t always afford it. Emperor Aurelian famously wouldn’t allow his wife to buy a shawl made from Tyrian purple silk because it literally cost its weight in gold.
However, the illustrious connotations of wearing purple lasted a great deal longer than the Roman Empire. From the reign of Edward III until well into the 17th century, Sumptuary Laws in England strictly regulated what colour and type of clothing, furs and fabrics could be worn by people of different classes and incomes within society. Elizabeth I’s Sumptuary Laws forbade anyone but close relatives of the queen and royal family to wear purple. One of the earliest acts passed by Henry VIII’s first parliament, which met in January 1510, was a lengthy Sumptuary Law entitled ‘An Act agaynst wearing of costlyApparrell’. Some historians have suggested that the intermittent instability of the Tudor dynasty accounts for the Tudors’ preoccupation with prescribing what the rest of the populous could and could not wear, and how other people were allowed to present themselves.
It is therefore unsurprising that mass movements have alsobeen quick to utilise the power of symbolism and adopt powerful and distinctive regalia in order to identify their cause. Perhaps the most famous of these is the hammer and sickle, a Communist symbol conceived during the Russian Revolution. The hammer stands for industrial labourers, who dominated the Russian proletariat during the revolution, and the sickle for the peasantry. The two symbols combined (in theory) represent the worker-peasant alliance in favour of socialism and against the tyranny of the bourgeoisie. Today, despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle symbol remains commonplace in Russia and is even featured on a lot of western products with surprising regularity, particularly on clothing, bags and badges; a testament to the enduring power of symbolism. However, its display is prohibited in several of the former Eastern Bloc countries, much like the swastika is in Germany, and the foreign ministers of six countries called for an EU-wide ban on communist symbols in 2010, urging the EU to criminalise ‘the approval, denial or belittling of communist crimes’.
In more recent times, following the release of the film V for Vendetta in 2006, the Guy Fawkes mask, a stylised depiction of the face of Guy Fawkes (the best known member of the Gunpowder Plot) has become commonplace in anti-establishment political protest. The Guy Fawkes mask, initially appropriated by the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous, has since been touted in favour of causes asdisparate as the Occupy Movement, an anti-capitalist protest movement, pro-democracy campaigns against the Chinese governmentin Hong Kong and in the protests against racism and police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. This sudden reversal of Guy Fawkes’ fortunes, whose effigy has after all, been burned annually across the UK for hundreds of years, usually accompanied by mass merriment (and mulled wine!), says it all about the use and abuse of symbolism in politics, and throws the potency of good stylistic management into sharp relief.