Symbolic Meaning of White (And Use Through History)

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White is the lightest of all colors and unlike others, it has no hue. It’s the color of chalk, milk and fresh snow and as the opposite of black, white usually has positive connotations. Here’s a quick look at the history of the color white, what it represents, and how it’s used around the world today.

The Use of White Throughout History

White in Prehistory

White was one of the first five colors used in art, the others being red, brown, black and yellow. Drawings in the Lascaux Cave in France from prehistoric times by paleolithic artists, feature the use of white as background colors.

White in Ancient Egypt

White was a revered color, associated with the Goddess Isis, one of the main Goddesses in the Ancient Egyptian religion. The devotees of Isis wore white linen which was also used for wrapping mummies.

The ancient Egyptians made color pigments from various sources and were among the first to fix dyes onto a white, transparent powder base to make different colored pigments. They also used alum, a chemical compound made of double sulphate salt of aluminium, because of its white color.

White in Greece

The Greeks associated the color white with mother’s milk. According to Greek mythology, Zeus, the God of the sky and thunder, was looked after by Amalthea (a goat-nurse) who nourished him with her milk. Therefore, milk (and by extension white) was considered a sacred substance.

Famous Greek painters used white with yellow, red and black in their paintings since it was considered a fundamental color. They used a highly toxic white lead pigment, made through a long and complicated process. However, they were completely unaware of its toxic properties and don’t appear to have had the slightest idea of the dangers it could cause.

White in Rome

In Rome, plain white togas were the dress code for all ceremonies which any Roman citizen over the age of 18 attended. Certain priests and magistrates also wore the toga with a wide purple stripe on it. During the time of Emperor Augustus, it was a mandatory outfit for all Roman men who were to appear at the Roman forum, a site in the center of the city, for important political, religious and social activities. If they didn’t dress as required, they weren’t allowed to enter.

White in the Middle Ages

In the 16th century, white was the color of mourning most commonly worn by the widows. Any knight who was willing to give their blood for the Church or for the king also donned a white tunic with a red cloak.

White in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Girl wearing white wedding dress

White became a fashionable color for men and women at one point in the 18th century. Men of the upper classes wore white stockings and powdered white wigs while the women wore embroidered pastel and white gowns which were quite elaborate. Later on, after the French Revolution, white was the most fashionable color and associated with the upper classes.

Queen Victoria made white the popular color for wedding dresses, when she wore an extravagant white dress at her wedding. At the time, white was associated with mourning, and so it outraged Victorian society. However, it quickly became the go-to color for weddings.

White in Modern Times

Towards the end of the 19th century, the original lead white pigment used by the Greeks was still the most popular. However, chemical companies in the US and Norway began to make a new pigment from titanium oxide, called ‘titanium white’. This pigment was an extremely bright one and covered twice as much as the lead white pigment. Later on, about 80% of white pigments that were sold were titanium white.

Modernist painters liked the absoluteness of this new white pigment and many of them used it in their paintings. ‘The White Square’ was an abstract oil-on-canvas painting by Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, intended to create a sense of transcendence for the viewer. Today, more than 3,000,000 tons of titanium oxide is produced per year and it’s used in all corners of the globe.

What Does the Color White Symbolize?

White is a positive color with a lot of symbolism behind it and commonly associated with goodness, safety, sincerity and perfection. It’s a tidy, refreshing and clean color that has many positive connotations.

  • Successful beginnings. In heraldry, white represents successful beginnings and faith. In some countries it’s a color of mourning but in others, it symbolizes peace and joy. The color also stands for wholeness and completion.
  • Cleanliness. White is often seen in medical centers, hospitals and laboratories, associated with sterility and cleanliness. It’s usually used in such settings to communicate safety.
  • Purity. The color white symbolizes purity, innocence and virginity which is why it’s traditionally worn by brides.
  • Peace. White symbolizes peace, with many peace symbols using the color. For example, a white dove signifies peace and a white flag symbolizes truce.
  • Mourning. In some faiths, such as Buddhism, white is the color of mourning. It’s worn to funerals as a sign of respect for the dead.

Symbolism of White in Different Cultures

White color in Islam
  • The priestesses of the Goddess Vesta in Rome donned white robes and veils since it symbolized their loyalty, chastity and purity.
  • In Western cultures, white is symbolic of elegance, peace and cleanliness. A white flag is used to request a truce or to represent surrender. It’s also often associated with hospitals, angels and weddings.
  • In China, Korea and other Asian countries, white is the color of mourning and death. In these countries, it’s tradition to wear white at funerals.
  • In Peru, white is closely associated with good health, time and angels. The Peruvian national flag consists of 3 stripes, 2 red and 1 white. While the red represents bloodshed, the white stripe represents justice and peace.
  • Indian widows can only wear white since as respect to their dead husband. When a widow dons white garments, she detaches herself from the luxuries and pleasures of the life and society around her.
  • In Christianity, the white dove and the olive branch is symbolic of eternal peace. According to the religion, God selected the white dove to represent the Holy Spirit. It’s commonly seen in Christian iconography.
  • In Sri Lanka, Buddhists don white clothing during auspicious times and certain ceremonies. They also wear it at funerals in respect of the dead.
  • The Islamic religion encourages all men to wear white especially on Fridays, before they go to the Mosque for prayers.

Positive and Negative Aspects of the Color White

The color white has both positive and negative aspects that can greatly influence the human mind.

On the positive side, white gives a feeling of cleanliness and happiness since it’s a bright color. It also gives the feeling of starting fresh, like a clean slate that’s ready to be written on.

It’s quite easy to envisage anything with the color white. It’s a great color interior decoration and many designers use it to make small rooms seem big, airy and spacious. The color can also help increase mental clarity while promoting feelings of freshness and renewal. 

The downside of the color white is that it can be bland, cold and sterile. It can make a person feel cold and isolated, causing feelings of loneliness. The human eye finds it difficult to perceive this color due to its brightness and brilliance so too much of it should be avoided.

An excess of white can easily cause headaches in some people and it can also be bright to the point where it’s actually blinding. In interior design, white should be accented with brighter or more dominant colors to gain balance.

Personality Color White – What It Means

Personality color white

If your favorite color is white, it can say a lot about your personality. Here are some of the most common traits among people who love white (a.k.a. personality color whites), many of which you might find applicable to you.

  • People with a personality color white tend to be immaculate and neat in their appearance.
  • They are far-sighted, with an optimistic and positive nature.
  • They tend to be practical, cautious and careful with their money.
  • They have excellent self-control.
  • They find it difficult to be flexible or open minded. They may also struggle to communicate their needs and desires.
  • They are often critical of themselves and others since they strive for perfection.
  • Personality color whites think carefully before they act. They’re definitely not the impulsive sort.
  • They’ve got impeccable standards of hygiene and cleanliness and they expect the same from others.  

The Use of White in Fashion and Jewelry

Girl wearing white pearl necklace

The color white is used extensively in the world of fashion. Pure white looks great on anyone regardless of skin color or tone. White is the traditional color for bridal gowns and it’s also a popular choice for professional attire, usually worn for interviews and meetings. Salespeople are usually encouraged to wear white since it’s a neutral color that is unlikely to draw away the customer’s attention from the products.

In terms of jewelry, white metals such as white gold, silver and platinum, although not exactly white, are considered modern and stylish. White gemstones include white agate, pearls, opals, moonstone and white jade. While diamonds are often considered white gemstones, in reality, they’re colorless as they are transparent like glass.

In Brief

Although the color white has several associations, they aren’t always universal. The symbolism, meanings and associations of white depends on the context it’s viewed in. Overall, white remains a neutral color that is extensively used in fashion, interior design, jewelry, and clothing.

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