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Often, you can tell who is in charge by the colours they wear. This can apply to royalty, nobility, military leaders, and even just the town mayor. Plus, this can apply to all of the clothes they wear or just a sash worn over a fancy suit (as long as they aren't the only one wearing it).
This largely started because certain colours were highly expensive and thus, only the most wealthy could afford them. Then the patrician class in Rome declared that the dye Tyrian Purple would be exclusively for them (at least, within Roman territory), hence the trope name. (Note that "purple" is actually kind of misleading as a translation; the actual colour was more what we'd describe as purplish-red. Don't expect to see this reflected in TV and movie depictions of Roman patricians unless they're being very, very scrupulous with their research.)
Other expensive dyes included royal blue, vermilion (a type of bright red), or gold. And that is why, in paintings of royalty, their Royal Robes are almost always these colours. Despite this, this does not have to be the Ermine Cape Effect; Modest Royalty can use these colours to ensure people know who they are.
Thus, in fiction, who is in charge, or closely related to those in charge, can often be indicated by wearing colours distinct from everyone else.
To fit this trope:
- The people have to be in authority, but not necessarily royalty.
- They have to wear these colours, not simply use something distinctly colouured.
- Even though most common colours are purple, blue, red, and gold, any colour will do as long as those not in charge don't wear it.
Also, this isn't really practiced in Real Life military forces anymore, as that just paints a bulls-eye on the officers. But for that very reason, Video Games often use this trope to identify the leader of a group.
- In Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, only members of the Supreme Council are allowed to wear purple uniforms.
- More obvious in the Trinity Blood novels and manga: the Empress is the only one to wear green. Her personal guard wear red and the nobles wear blue.
- In Kyo Kara Maoh, black clothes are reserved for the king. Thus Yuuri's school uniform marks him as someone special in this universe, rather than as the Ordinary High School Student he is back home.
- In Franco Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet, the Prince wears deep purple, setting him apart from the blue Montagues and red Capulets.
- In the film version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, King Caspian always wears a purple shirt or tunic.
- On Gor, only Ubars (high-ranking warriors/leaders) may wear purple. Then, it's revealed that the Priest-Kings (the "gods" of the planet) have all of their slaves wear it as well.
- Most of Sandy Mitchell's Warhammer 40000 novel Scourge the Heretic is set on a world where only royalty wear red. An Inquisition operative raised on another world whose faith considered red a holy colour and always wore it compromised by buying red underwear.
- In The Wind Singer, the citizens of Aramanth must wear a colour denoting their social status: grey (lowest), maroon, orange, crimson, or white (highest...until Kestrel and Bowman run into the Emperor, who wears blue).
- In Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey, the entire society is arranged according to what color a person can see - Purples form the highest class. Additionally, wealthy people can show their money and devotion to their color by wearing artificially colored clothes.
- In David Eddings' Belgariad and Malloreon, only the Emperor is allowed to wear a gold toga in Tolnedra. The heir to the empire is allowed a gold border on his toga.
- And in his Elenium, the patriarchs of the Church (basically, the story world's version of the Pope and his cardinals) all wear black at all times -- except during state funerals, during which they dress in vibrant colors to indicate their homelands.
- The Emperor from Harry Turtledove's Videssos series is the only one permitted to wear distinctive red boots.
- This may be related to the real-life Pope's tradition of red shoes.
- They were both doing it in imitation of the Byantine emperors. Who did it in imitation of the older Roman emperors. Who did it in imitation of the Etruscan kings.
- This may be related to the real-life Pope's tradition of red shoes.
- In the Deryni novels, Haldane rulers (Brion, Kelson, et.al.) wear red (unce Duke Alaric Morgan puts aside the black for other colours, he won't wear red because his king does). Prince Nigel Haldane, Duke of Carthmoor (Brion's brother and Kelson's uncle) wears royal blue.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, the fringe of the Ghiscari tokars signifies the importance of the wearer (with Tyrian Purple being the color of the Grand Masters).
- In the Honorverse, only starship captains wear a white beret rather than the usual black.
- In the Firefly episode "Shindig", Sir Warrick Harrow wears a red sash, which denotes lordhood.
- Although the color might not be important. It's not exactly made clear.
- According to the Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin, the majority of Gallifrey's political power is held by the Prydon Chapter, who are signified by their scarlet and orange ceremonial robes, while all the other chapters wear various other colours. This distinction seemed to be lost when the new series brought them back, although Word of God was that it was supposed to be unity during the time war.
- In Babylon 5, The Emperor of the Centauri Republic wears all-white. All other Centauri wear various different colors.
- The Head Death from Irregular Webcomic wears a purple cape. His underlings wear black.
- Trolls in Homestuck have a Fantastic Caste System in which the color of one's blood determines one's social status. Most trolls incorporate their caste's color and an associated symbol into their clothing.
- Princess Yue in Avatar: The Last Airbender. As noted, she's the only one of the water tribes to wear purple.
- Gran Gran wears purple as well. Of course, she was originally from the Northern tribe before she ran away due to her engagement, so maybe she was somebody important up there too.
- In "The Fortuneteller", Aunt Wu, the de facto ruler of her village, is the only one to wear a gold robe. All other residents wear shades of green, blue, or pink.
- Mai, a Fire Nation aristocrat, also wears (dark) purple, possibly to foreshadow a future as Queen of the Fire Nation.
- Papa Smurf wears red, where everybody else wears white. Grandpa Smurf - who is no longer a leader, but used to be one, and is considered a great adviser - wears yellow.
- Red was apparently associated with nobility in Ancient Rome. It seems that when Julius Caesar started wearing red, the Senate didn't appreciate the Foreshadowing and plotted against him. And later, under the emperors, purple was the imperial color. Suspicious emperors would have people executed for owning purple robes. Depending on the period, the use of purple decorations (say, a border on a toga) was strictly regulated.
- Red was explicitly associated with the military, and a Roman general was expected to "put off the scarlet" (that is, change out of his military garb and re-don his toga) before he re-entered Rome. For Gaius Julius to keep wearing his scarlet cloak in Rome had a similar effect on the political class to that which you might expect if a sucessful modern general joined a government and persisted in wearing uniform in the House.
- The colour called Tyrian purple actually looks more like maroon than your typical violet; the finest-grade dye was often described as 'dried blood'. It came from the mucus of a certain kind of Mediterranean seashell, the Murex, and required so many of them to make even the smallest amount of dye that it was worth twice its weight in silver. Expensive stuff, due its high cost there were legal limits on the amount anyone could wear at one point to prevent lavish waste. Cheaper purples were possible, by overdying a blue with a red, but they tended to be muddy and not very colorfast.
- Which was important to both history and religion because the source was the port city of Tyre, in the province of Judea, making the dye one of the Romans' reasons for controlling what's now Israel.
- When the artificial purple dye mauvine was invented in the nineteenth century, it was sometimes marketed as 'Tyrian purple' and soon became associated with political radical movements such as suffragism--the implication being "if everyone can wear purple, then everyone is a king, therefore everyone is equal".
- There were also rules about Jewellery - for example, the Ius Annuli restricted the wearing of gold rings to the Patrician class, silver to the Equites, and various lesser metals to the Plebs. (The extremely vain ex-slave Trimalchio, in Satyricon, is just keeping within the law by wearing a gold ring with iron studs.)
- A clear, bright, non-fading red was also rare, as it required either kermes or cochineal, once the Americas were discovered. Both of these are insects, and the dye is derived from their bodies. Given equal amounts of kermes and cochineal dye, the cochineal would dye 10 to 12 times more fabric. There were cheap red dyes, made from various plants (lichens and madder), but the colors these dyes produced tend to the orangey-red rather than a clear, bright crimson.
- Surprisingly, to most modern people, a true black was an incredibly difficult and expensive color. There is no natural dye that produces a true black; the best way to achieve it was to overdye "black" wool (which is usually a really dark brown) several times, and it still resulted in a fugitive color, fading to brown or greyish-blue quite quickly.
- Even today, people still need to take care of their black clothes to make sure they don't fade.
- Many sock firms try to get away with selling socks that are merely very, very, very, very, very dark blue.
- In China, yellow was associated with the Emperor because the first syllable of the traditional title huangdi sounds identical to the word for yellow. In historical dramas, this usually manifests in the Emperor wearing yellow clothing or awarding it for some service. The various grades of officials were also distinguished by color; blue, green, red, and purple.
- Saffron, that super-expensive and delicious spice, also doubled as one of the finest yellow dyes.
- In early modern England, sumptuary laws dictated which classes could wear which colors and materials (for instance, in order to wear velvet, you had to be at least a knight; silk was reserved for barons and above, and only members of the royal family could wear purple). When William Shakespeare's company became the King's Men under the reign of James I, they were allowed to wear scarlet, which was a Big Deal, even if the sumptuary laws were frequently ignored.
- Traditionally, the Vatican has had a strict dress code about people who met with the pope--among the rules was that women always had to wear black, except for female Catholic monarchs and the wives of male Catholic monarchs, who could wear white (a rule called privilège du blanc). Following this code is no longer obligatory, though Cherie Blair (wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, noted for both being a Catholic and leftist with republican, anti-monarchy tendencies) caused some controversy when she chose to wear white (both as a possible violation of protocol--though she was Catholic, Tony wasn't yet--and a slap in the face to the Queen--as Tony wasn't head of state but rather head of government).
- Adolf Hitler. Although most photos are in black and white, colour ones show he normally wore a plain khaki uniform, while the army officers wore grey, the SS officers wore black, the navy wore white. Hitler also normally only wore his Iron Cross he earned in World War I, while everyone around him wore multiple metals.