'A Dash of Lavender'

'A Dash of Lavender' cites lavender as one of many floral symbols used by queers throughout history to communicate their passions. A trace of a time when subtlety meant survival.

Until the accidental invention of ‘mauve’ as a synthetic dye in 1856 by William Henry Perkin, throughout history the colour purple has always been an incredibly rare colour. Until this rise in accessibility, purple was always the colour of the ‘other’, a rare phenomenon to discover. Yet purple has always been found in nature in so many varying hues and vibrancies. It has always been and will always be.

The colour purples association with queerness has a rich and far stretching history. 

Violets first became associated with queerness, particularly female love, in the 6th century through the Greek poet Sappho who commissioned it a colour of desire. Her poetry contains numerous references to violets, alongside purple hyacinths and crocuses; she wrote of younger girls adorned in flowers, wearing ‘violet tiaras’ or woven around their ‘slender necks’. Violets continued as weighted lesbian symbols for centuries to come.

“You culled violets and roses, bloom and stem,

Often in spring and I looked on as you

Wove a bouquet into a diadem.”


‘Lavender Boy’ or having a ‘streak’ or a ‘dash’ of lavender were terms used in the 1920’s for gay men who were perceived as effeminate or lacking in typical masculine attributes. A person who’s heterosexuality was in question would be referred to as having “…having a streak of lavender”. Historian Carl Sandburg once wrote of Abraham Lincoln “A streak of Lavender ran through him; he had spots soft as May violets.”, implying homosexual tendencies.

The accidental invention of synthetic purple dye in 1856 by William Henry Perkin revolutionised popular fashion. Whilst trying to make an alternative to quinine, a substance used to treat malaria, which was extracted from the bark of exotic trees, he produced a thick black sludge from coal tar. Perkin called this new colour ‘Tyrian purple’, and later ‘mauve’. Previous to this, only natural dyes derived from plants and animals were available, purple for instance, “had to be extracted from a type of shellfish that grew in select places in the Mediterranean… the process was costly, messy, and a general pain.” (Lee Blaszczyk). 

The post-Industrial Revolution phase manufacturing process meant that products incorporating this new ‘mauve’ dye could be mass-produced with great speed and items of purple colour became fashionable items for both men and women. However, at the emergence of the aesthetic movement at the end of the 19th century: advocating for beauty, passion and “art for arts sake” and resisting the ugliness of the industrial age, the colour became likened to homosexuality. Aesthetes were seen as effeminates, a reputation likely produced by the public profile of the movement's leaving figures. Oscar Wilde, who's work openly addressed homoerotic themes and queer love, frequently reminisced about ‘purple hours’ spent with rent boys. He references ‘purple hours’ as a source of joy in a ‘grey world’.

“How evil it is to buy love, and how evil to sell it! And yet what purple hours one can snatch from that grey slowly-moving thing we call Time! My mouth is twisted with kissing, and I feed on fevers.”

Oscar Wilde, 1900

In 1930’s London, gay men would call each other ‘sisters’. They had no other way to think of themselves- and one another. They assumed that they must be some kind of intermediate sex, more akin to women and femininity than to men and masculinity. They would have ‘camp names’ for each other; lady lavender, may, ethel, kate… Places frequented by men of this kind were dubbed with queer names too; ‘The Lions Corner’ tea rooms became referred to as ‘The Lily Pond’ as a result of those who frequented it and the activities that it facilitated.

The ‘Lavender Scare’ was an American ‘moral panic’ starting in the 1950’s which resulted in a mass dismissal or systematic removal of gay men and lesbians from government services. It was a state-sanctioned discrimination “...a nation witch-hunt to purge homosexual men and women from the federal government.”. An estimated 5000-10,000 federal agents lost their jobs on the basis of their sexuality throughout the Lavender Scare, with many “voluntarily resigning” after invasive investigations and others taking their own lives. The policy was centralised around a baseless fear that gay men and lesbians “...posed a threat to national security because they were vulnerable to blackmail and were considered to have weak moral characters,” (David K. Johnson, historian). The movement coincided with the “Red Scare”- a similar campaign targeting ‘alleged subversive communists’ working for the federal government. Post-war political and moral insecurities surrounding political subversives became joined to resistance towards the homosexual communities, whose visibility had grown throughout the war. “It’s a classic case of scapegoating.” (D.K. Johnson).

 “...the suffocating climate of fear…”.

‘The Lavender Menace’ was an informal group of lesbian radical feminists in the USA who formed in 1970 following their exclusion from the feminist movement at the Second Congress. Lesbianism was frequently understood as a threat within many of the patrons of the National Organisation for Women, believing their association would handicap their potential for serious political change. The term ‘Lavender Menace’ originated as a negative term for the association of lesbianism within the movement before being reclaimed by the lesbian feminists. Their radical discourse and various stunts spurred a change widely considered a turning point in the second-wave feminist movement and by the next national conference the following year the NOW recognised lesbianism and lesbian rights as “a legitimate concern for feminism.”. Following the Lavender Menace advocacy, lavender became associated with lesbians wanting to show solidarity with the agendas of the group. 

The ‘Lavender Ceiling’ is a term used to describe when homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism are established parts of the professional environment. It describes when an LGBTQ+ person encounters more resistance towards promotion than a straight person would; it is a result of a systemic bias and discrimination both within the hiring structures and policies of a company. It is the difference between professional stagnation and professional promotion purely factored on sexuality. It is the LGBTQ+ alternative of the ‘glass-ceiling’, a term used to describe the same promotive discrimination for women in male-dominated workplaces. 

‘Lavender Marriage’ was a term used to describe the marriage between a homosexual man and lesbian woman with the intent to conceal the sexualities of one or both partners. A kind of arranged marriage by the heterosoc.

In ‘The Colour Purple’, Shug Avery asks Celie if she takes time to notice the little things that God does to show us that it loves us, reminding Celie to stop and smell the roses. In stopping to notice these hues, only previously reflecting on purple bruises, she accesses freedom, and her- and our own- world opens up into technicolour from a once muted monochromatism.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,”

-Shug Avery, The Colour Purple

(film: Stephen Spielberg, book: Alice Walker)

In Derek Jarman’s 1993 book ‘Chroma’, he meditates on colour; travelling through the spectrum revealing it's timeless capacity of embodying varying emotions, memories and dreams. He reflects on how violet, mauve and lavender, the “colours of eden” are missing from ‘Gods rainbow’. At the end of his life, dying from AIDS and with his eyesight failing, he imagines purple as a transgressive colour:

“Purple is passionate, maybe violet becomes a little bolder and fucks pink into purple. Sweet lavender blushes and watches.”

Horticultural symbolism, an ancient lexicon, has allowed queers to protect their narrative throughout history. Its power to subvert semiotic classification in its universality; nature disallowing its definite signification. It has provided a safe space, paradise and oasis for the sharing of passions; a means to recognise oneself in the other- to communicate that you are here. That community exists through purple specks. 

‘A Dash of Lavender’ is a reminder of a time when subtlety was synonymous of survival. A time when knowledge of the subversive codes at play were your only promise of community, of love, and of experiencing colours of hues of our own.

The palm-tree branch, or frond, is a symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world. In Ancient Rome, the palm was one of the most common attributes of victory personified.

Palm-tree Frond (leaf scar), Steel, Sawdust Polymer, Rattan, Tin Shades, 3D Print, Resin, Light Fixture


shown as part of ‘Dripping Rhubarb', Tableau, Copenhagen

made possible by Stimuleeringsfonds