Color, Identity, and Culture

Cultural traditions Dyeing Traditional Techniques

Throughout human history, people have attributed power and meaning to color. Humans have made great efforts to harness that power, to use color as an expression of identity. Even today, in Western cultures, there is a science of color that examines its psychological effects. For example, red is associated with excitement, green with peace, yellow with optimism, and purple with creativity. But does color convey the same meaning across different cultures?

The Maasai, for example, use a complex language of color in their beadwork. Red is associated with strength, bravery, and protection and is compared to the blood of a cow that is slaughtered for community celebrations. Yellow is associated with hospitality and suggests the color of animal skins the make up a bed offered to guests. (See The Symbolic Power of Maasai Beadwork for more information on this topic.) The meaning of color is culturally-specific. White, for example, can signify purity, holiness, truce, death, mourning, intelligence, or happiness depending on the culture you are in. And to make things even more interesting, there is evidence to suggest that not all cultures perceive color in the same way. For example, not everyone recognizes a difference between red, orange, and yellow.

Maasai women in red and purple cloth
Maasai Women in red, blue, and purple cloth

Color can also communicate class and ethnic identity. A friend, who works with global artisans and promotes fair trade, recently told me that she had to convince women weavers she works with in Guatemala to make scarves in soft, neutral, subdued colors. The artisans themselves thought that these colors combinations were quite ugly, but their preferred palette of bright reds, purples, yellows, greens, and blues wouldn’t sell in American markets. There is a belief in many middle to upper class Western societies that soft, neutral colors are more “sophisticated,” “classic,” or even “tasteful.” Indeed, color preferences encode class identity and ethnic origins, especially in a culturally diverse and hierarchical society.

Dyes in Morrocan market
Dyes in a market in Chefchaoen, Morocco

The use of particular colors and materials is rooted in complex history. For example, in Mexico many markets targeted by tourists or created for export have become more dependent on cheaper synthetic fabrics and dyes to create artisan goods. Even the way that villagers dress in small communities has shifted from the use of locally-made fabrics and colors to factory made clothes, due in part to discrimination against indigenous peoples and their traditional clothing, especially in urban centers.

Dyed wool yarn in a weaving workshop, Mexico
Dyed wool yarn in a weaving workshop, Mexico

Many indigenous people are questioning and challenging these trends and embracing the older craft traditions of their ancestors while simultaneously exploring innovation. Porfirio Gutiérrez, a dyer and weaver in Oaxaca, Mexico states that turning to synthetic dyes and fabrics signals a loss of cultural identity. He describes the dependency on imported colors and fabrics as, “folding under the weight of industrialization, [and] tourism” and I would add the legacy of colonialism. Gutiérrez sees the loss of traditional textile craft as, “the loss of the soul of the art because of the loss of the connections to the land.” The connection to the land is linked to the traditional knowledge of which plants, insects, and minerals are used for dyeing fibers. Revitalizing the natural dye process has helped Gutiérrez to rediscover the importance of cultural identity and the historical significance of color.

Processing natural dyes in Mexico
Processing natural dyes in Mexico

Let’s consider the significance of the color red, especially as it relates to the history of Mexico. Red is naturally produced from cochineal, a small insect that grows on nopal cactus that is crushed to produce a vibrant, rich color. It is estimated that it takes 60,000- 70,000 insects to make 1 pound of cochineal. Historical scholars point out that cochineal and its gorgeous deep red used to dye fabric was a major driver of colonialism, second to mining in this part of the world. The color was so prized and coveted that it motivated European colonizers to overwhelm this region and its people with economic and social force. It is ironic that in the wake of the massive cultural changes associated with colonialism that the use of cochineal and other natural dyes were abandoned to synthetics with the advent of industrialization and the global economy. Now cochineal and other natural dyes are being “rediscovered” in the backlash against mass production.

Similarly, purple has been a color and a natural dye much sought after throughout human history. There are few natural sources of this color throughout the world making it rare and often associated with the wealthy few who could afford such a luxury. In Mexico, purple dye is made from coastal snails. The purpura dye is “milked” from snails that cling to the rocks at the tide line. After their milky liquid is extracted they are put back on the rocks to fully recharged with the next cycle of the moon. The dye turns white cotton to yellow, then turquoise, and finally a deep purple.

Indigo blue is another natural dye that carries profound historical significance in many parts of the world. Indigo comes from India but came to have extreme cultural, economic, political and even spiritual importance in many places throughout Asia and Africa. Particularly, in West Africa many cultures cultivated and used indigo to dye cloth that was more valued than many forms of currency.

Tuareg man
Tuareg man in indigo headscarf

Amongst the Tuareg people of Mali and Niger, indigo is a symbol of status and social belonging. The Tuareg are also known as the Blue Men of the Sahara Desert. Because they live in the desert and water is sometimes scarce the dye is beaten into the cloth rather than soaked in a bath. This process produces a deep blue, sometimes almost metallic purple finish that often rubs off of the skin of its wearer.

Indigo dye bath
Indigo dye bath

In other parts of West Africa people were captured as slaves and brought to the United States. These people brought with them their knowledge of indigo cultivation and processing. In fact, in the early days of the United States, indigo was sometimes used as a form of currency. The blue of the original American flag was created with indigo dye.

Learn more about creating natural dyes in your own kitchen in this tutorial. Perhaps through the process of creating our own dyes we will gain a sense of the ancestral knowledge used to make the human world a more colorful experience.



Color Emotion Guide, for information on the psychology  of color

Colours in Culture, for a wonderful chart showing meanings of color in different cultures

"Do You See What I See?" by Nicola Jones, for an article about color perception across different cutlures

Oaxaca: Stories in Cloth, Eric Sebastian Mindling, Thrum Books for beautiful photos and information about Oaxacan textile craft

"A Zapotec Artist & Weaver Rebuilds HIs Own History For Generations To Come" by Amy Dufault, Taproot Magazine, Issue 41 for an interesting article about indigenous textile traditions in Oaxaca, Mexico 

"Indigo: The Indelible Color That Ruled The World" for fascinating facts about the global history of indigo 




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