Friday, 23 November 2012

Flower Power - Lavender

Today we deal more with the colour of lavender than the flower - the colour that has had more of an impact on the lgbt community.

A few other flowers have had their names given to colours, and lavender was first used as a colour name in 1705, according to “A Dictionary of Colour” published in 1930. Its adoption among the lgbt community is a little less precise, as is the shade and hue that is used. It is possible that lavender came into use because it is a pale version of violet or purple.

Lavender and violet (violet plants in particular) were used in the lesbian community from 1927, though violet has links back to the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. Also, in the 1920s the lavender plant and its scent had become attributed to effeminate men. Phrases like “streak of lavender” and “dash of lavender” were being used in popular culture, even being paraphrased by Cole Porter with these lines from his 1929 song “I’m A Gigolo” :
“I should like you all to know,
I’m a famous gigolo,
And of lavender, my nature’s got just a dash of it.
As I’m slightly undersexed
You will always find me next
To some dowager who’s wealthy rather than passionate”.

We can perhaps theorise about the development of the symbolic use of lavender in the gay community from the symbolism of purple and mauve in the Victorian period.

Purple has been associated with royalty since the Roman Empire. As such it became a colour that expressed the decadence and extravagance of the emperors. This association with decadence lasted right into the Victorian period when it became used (along with the yellow) to symbolise those of the flamboyant, aesthetic, art-loving circles epitomised by Oscar Wilde. Wilde himself referred to “purple hours”, his experiences with male prostitutes that helped to light up his otherwise grey life.

Because the Industrial Revolution was still flexing its muscles all through the period, these aesthetic, decadent art-lovers were seen as unmanly and un-macho. These men seemed to have no interest in the pursuit of Victorian ideals like industrial advancement or imperial colonialism and spent their time in what was considered feminine interests, like the arts. As a way of pointing out these un-Victorian men the decadent purple was dropped in favour of the paler lavender to symbolise unmanly interests of the aesthetes. From this it is a short step to link lavender with effeminate men and the old perception of homosexuals.

It was in the 1950s that lavender became firmly associated with the lgbt community, though it was 1960s America that saw its use most widespread before the popular adoption of the European pink triangle.

It is, perhaps, still in America that the use of the word and colour lavender has remained constant. The gay rights movement is now often referred to as a “lavender revolution”. Since then lavender has been attributed in more recent years to many events involving the lgbt community.

One other use of the word lavender which emerged during the 1970s is in the term “lavender marriage”. Ever since the silent days of Hollywood films there have been closeted gay leading men. Some of them were known to be gay within the studio system – the old system where actors worked for the film studios like regular employees. In an era where gossip about a leading actor’s sexuality could ruin his career and the studio’s, the movie moguls ordered gay actors to marry to keep up the appearance of a straight man. This was the lavender marriage.

Today there are hundreds of lgbt organisations which have lavender in their name and in their logo, most of them in the USA. I mentioned a few weeks ago in my memorial piece on Professor Philip Brett of the lgbt group at the University of California called LavenderCal.

In the UK lavender has more of a comical association with gay men. It doesn’t have the same cultural background as a use within activism as it did in 1970s USA, with groups like the Lavender Menace and Lavender Panthers. Perhaps the Victorian symbolism with effeminism has yet to fully disappear in the UK.

1 comment:

  1. As a historian of LGBTQ life in the U.S. I would LOVE to have citations for all the interesting references to the association of "lavender" with LGBT people. Here is one more documented reference: In 1926, in his popular biography of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg said of Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed: "He had spots soft as May violets." Speed and Lincoln "told each other their secrets about women," said Sandburg, and "Lincoln too had . . . a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets." (See my book Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 25 and 354 n.81.) Thanks, Jonathan Ned Katz