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The Power of White: A Historical and Symbolic Exploration

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.

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The History of White

a white rose

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.

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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.

1. Successful Beginnings

In heraldry, white means successful beginnings and faith. Its significance varies across cultures. In some places, it symbolizes mourning, while in others, it brings thoughts of peace, joy, and celebration. This difference shows how cultures interpret colors uniquely. White often symbolizes wholeness and completion, common in cultural and religious ceremonies to mark new beginnings and fulfillment.

2. Cleanliness

In medical settings like hospitals and labs, white stands for cleanliness and sterility. This color choice goes beyond just looking clean; it promotes a sense of safety and precision. White helps highlight cleanliness, creating an environment that reassures both patients and staff about hygiene standards.

3. Purity

White has long been associated with purity, innocence, and virginity, which is why brides often wear white. This tradition, found in many cultures, sees white as a symbol of untouched beauty and a fresh start. Wearing white at weddings goes beyond fashion; it’s a cultural statement of a new beginning and pure union.

4. Peace

White is widely known as a peace symbol. The white dove with an olive branch, for instance, signifies peace and reconciliation. The white flag is a universal sign for truce, used to indicate the desire for ceasefire and negotiation. White’s peaceful imagery comes from its links to purity, calmness, and neutrality, making it a fitting emblem for peace.

5. Mourning

In some cultures and faiths, like Buddhism, white is the color of mourning, opposite to the dark colors used in Western mourning. Wearing white at funerals honors the deceased, symbolizing peace for their soul and their liberation from worldly life. It offers a respectful, serene farewell and represents hope for freedom.

The Color White: Positives and Negatives

white seashells

The Positives

White, with its symbolism of purity, innocence, and virginity, holds a significant place in various religious and cultural ceremonies. Commonly used to mark new beginnings or fresh starts, this color is a symbol of untouched beauty and simplicity, often chosen for events such as baptisms, weddings, and spiritual rituals. It signifies a transition to a new, pure phase of life, embodying hope and innocence.

In medical environments, white is crucial for representing cleanliness and sterility, essential aspects of healthcare. Its presence in hospital sheets, staff uniforms, and other areas emphasizes hygiene, helping to create a safe, germ-free atmosphere for both patients and healthcare professionals.

Additionally, white is a symbol of peace and tranquility, frequently appearing in peace flags and emblems to denote non-violence and truce. Its simplicity brings a sense of calm, making it a preferred choice in interior design for crafting peaceful, uncluttered spaces. In the world of fashion and interior design, white’s versatility is unmatched.

It complements a wide range of colors, providing a neutral backdrop that allows other hues to shine. Whether in clothing or home decor, white offers a timeless, elegant, and sophisticated look, adaptable to various styles from modern minimalism to classic elegance.

The Negatives

dirty white puppy

The color white, while often appreciated for its symbolism of purity and peace, presents several practical and cultural challenges. Its biggest drawback is the high maintenance it requires, as it easily shows dirt and stains. This aspect can render white clothing, furniture, and interiors less practical, necessitating frequent cleaning to maintain their pristine appearance.

Beyond practicality, white can impart a clinical or sterile feeling to homes and public spaces, sometimes creating an environment that feels cold and unwelcoming rather than comforting. In terms of cultural interpretation, white’s meaning can vary significantly. For instance, in many Asian cultures, white is associated with mourning and death, a stark contrast to its representation of purity and peace in Western contexts.

This difference in symbolism can lead to cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Furthermore, spaces or designs dominated by white might lack emotional warmth and depth. The absence of other colors or textures in all-white designs can lead to an environment that appears stark and uninviting, especially for those who prefer more vibrant, cozy settings.

This underscores the importance of considering cultural, emotional, and practical aspects when incorporating white into design and everyday life.

Personality Color White – What It Means

Personality color white

When you surround yourself with white, it reaches the part of you that loves purity, clarity, and simplicity. Think of white as your blank canvas, filled with endless opportunities and a chance to start fresh. In our complex world, white brings you peace and tranquility, like it’s clearing out all the noise and chaos, leaving you calm.

For you, white means honesty and transparency. It’s like a mirror that shows your true self, creating a space for openness and sincerity. Choosing to wear white is more than picking a color; it’s about showing who you really are, without any disguise or falsehood.

White has a minimalist elegance that appeals to you. It’s not about catching the eye; it has a quiet beauty that’s both timeless and sophisticated. White makes even the smallest things noticeable, spotlighting the beauty in simplicity.

Above all, white stands for new beginnings and potential in your life. It always reminds you that there’s a chance to start over, to clear everything away, and to create a new story. With white, you find more than just a color; you find a symbol of hope and limitless possibilities.

The Use of White in Fashion and Jewelry

Girl wearing white pearl necklace

White plays a key role in fashion and jewelry because of its flexibility, symbolic meaning, and beauty. In fashion, white is a classic color. It’s perfect for summer, giving a feeling of lightness and coolness. Designers often use white for elegant evening wear and wedding dresses, where it stands for purity and new beginnings. White is also a mainstay in casual clothing, like t-shirts and dresses, for a simple, clean look.

White works well with other colors, making it great for creating contrast. It softens bold colors or pairs nicely with pastels for a smooth, coordinated look. White shirts and blouses are must-haves in professional clothing, giving a sharp and neat impression that shows professionalism.

In jewelry, white appears mainly in diamonds, pearls, and metals like silver or white gold. White diamonds are especially valued for their brightness and sparkle, making them top choices for engagement rings and luxury jewelry. They symbolize lasting love and are seen as a sign of status because they’re rare and valuable.

Pearls add a timeless elegance to jewelry. They’ve been valued for ages and are linked to sophistication. Pearls fit both formal events and daily wear.

White gold and silver offer a modern alternative to traditional yellow gold. They have a cooler look and are great at making gemstones stand out. These metals are used in a wide variety of jewelry, from simple to elaborate designs.

Superstitions Surrounding the Color White

girl in white

The color white, with its symbolic associations of purity and innocence, features in various superstitions and cultural beliefs around the world. These superstitions often reflect the historical and cultural contexts of different societies.

1. Weddings

In many Western cultures, brides wear white wedding dresses as a symbol of purity and virginity. This tradition started in Queen Victoria’s time. Originally, it showed the bride’s purity and her family’s wealth. Now, the white wedding dress is a key part of Western weddings.

It’s more than a fashion choice; it’s a mix of tradition, romance, and personal style. Though its original meaning has faded, the white dress remains a symbol of wedding traditions and has evolved to suit modern tastes.

2. New Beginnings

In several Eastern cultures, white symbolizes new beginnings and renewal. Seen as the purest color, white represents a fresh start and a future without marks. It’s chosen for life-changing events like graduations and baby-naming ceremonies. White brings hope and the chance to leave the past behind, making it popular for celebrating new life chapters.

3. Mourning and Remembrance

In many Asian and African cultures, white means mourning and remembrance, unlike in the West. People wear white at funerals and memorial services to honor the dead. White symbolizes the soul’s release from the body and brings a peaceful feeling, showing respect for life and death. It helps express grief and connects the living to the departed.

4. Protection from Evil Spirits

Around the world, folklore says white can protect against evil spirits. This comes from its links to purity, light, and the divine. White is used in rituals and amulets to keep away negative energy. It’s a symbol of good over evil. Some cultures use white items in cleansing ceremonies to protect people and places.

5. Sailing Superstitions

Sailors and maritime cultures have a superstition about white. They believe wearing white can anger sea gods, causing bad luck at sea. This belief might come from the difficulty of keeping white clothes clean on a ship. Respecting the sea and its dangers, sailors follow this superstition for safe journeys.

6. Home and Architecture

In many cultures, painting a house white is thought to bring peace and good energy. White symbolizes purity, light, and harmony, thought to keep away bad vibes. It’s also believed to attract good luck. White is used in homes and buildings to make spaces feel bigger, brighter, and more peaceful. It enhances living spaces, promoting a sense of well-being.

Wrapping Up

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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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.