Two days ago, Americans watched (many via Twitter) Texas State Senator Wendy Davis filibuster the hell out of a proposed bill that would have banned all abortions in the state after 20 weeks and closed all but five of Texas’s clinics that currently offer the procedure. Davis stood and spoke without any breaks (including to drink, eat, or use the bathroom) for 13 hours, and perhaps because of that heroic effort — or perhaps because of a sexist male reporter with an eye for detail — a lot of attention ended up focused on her shoes. Davis wore pink sneakers for her filibuster, and those sneakers have become a symbol.
The sneakers got us thinking about the political potential of colors. Of course Davis probably didn’t leave home thinking, “Definitely pink — these sneakers are going to make history today,” but whether by choice or by accident (or some combination of both), colors have been used throughout history to help identify and brand movements and protests and political expression. And why not? In any day and age, but perhaps especially this one, the right images and aesthetics will take you far.
The French revolution gave the country its famous Tricolor flag, whose colors are highly symbolic. The new government combined white, a color associated with the monarchy and ancient France, with red and blue, the colors of Paris, which the city’s militia wore on their hats during the storming of the Bastille.
And speaking of revolutions, the Western media loves to assign them colors! See: the Yellow Revolution in the Philippines (1983–86), so-called for the yellow ribbons worn by protesters following the assassination of an opposition leader; the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003), named more for the flowers than the color of them, but still; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004–05), which reflects the color chosen to represent opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko’s campaign; and the Green Revolution in Iran (2009–10), after the Green Movement that sprung up to protest the rigged reelection of President Ahmadinejad.
As seen with the formation of the French flag, color combinations can also be potent symbols. Red and black have become the standard colors representing socialism and the far left. They’ve been adopted by everyone from anarcho-communists to Zapatistas. Red, of course, is also the traditional color of Communism, which is sort of ironic in the US, where red now means Republican, the farthest from Communism you can get. I’m sure you know that Democrats are blue, but did you also know that Libertarians are gold/yellow?
And what if you were to take all the colors and just sort of mash them all together? That would suggest love and peace and harmony, right? Enter the hippies in their tie-dyed clothing.
The LGBT pride flag sends a similar message, bringing together the main colors on the spectrum to comprise a rainbow. And actually, according to some sources, Gilbert Baker, the San Francisco artist who designed the pride flag, was inspired by the hippies, some of whom call themselves rainbows.
The LGBT movement is filled with interesting color-related symbols, including the green carnation worn by gay men on their lapels in Victorian England to subtly indicate their sexuality and find partners. Oscar Wilde was a big adopter.
Finally, color as political protest has taken on something of new form in the age of social media. When the US Supreme Court took up the question of gay marriage rights, people in favor showed their support by changing their profile pictures to a red and pink equals sign, a smart piece of political iconography by the Human Rights Campaign. In the Philippines, users blacked out their profile pictures to protest a proposed Cybercrime Prevention Act that they feared limited freedom of expression.
As Goethe revealed in his seminal Theory of Colors, the human layering of meaning upon simple refractions of light is, well, prismatic. And as visual affinities filter into politics, colors cease to occupy the sealed universe of pure color, becoming instead symbols for sacrifice, catalysts for action, and totems for an unshakable faith in victory.