Color quite literally colors the way we view our world. Let’s take a deep dive into the symbolism of colors in cultures around the world.
In art and anthropology, color symbolism refers to color’s ability to signify meaning and communicate intangible ideas and emotions. If you’ve ever “had the blues” or been so angry “you saw red,” then you’re already familiar with the concept.
From red‘s primal association with passion and aggression, to blue‘s association with conservatism and peace-keeping, there are near-universal symbolic meanings behind almost every color in the rainbow.
Additionally, there are a range of cultural influences that can affect one’s view of a specific color, like political and historical associations (think flag colors), mythological and religious associations (such as references to color in spiritual texts), and linguistic associations, including idioms and expressions.
If your next adventure in color is establishing a palette for your brand identity, then you should pay a visit to the Shutterstock color palette generator. We offer a whole spectrum of colors to use in your projects.
But, first, let’s explore the common symbolism of colors around the world in more detail.
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What Is Color Symbolism?
Color symbolism is the cultural evolution of our psychological associations with color.
Over millennia, particular colors have come to represent specific meanings or life events. These meanings are often shared near-universally or, in other cases, have cultural-specific meanings, depending on which part of the world we are looking at.
For example, in Western cultures, white is often associated with purity and innocence. It’s the traditional dress color of choice for Western brides, thanks to Queen Victoria, who began the fashion with her own white wedding dress in 1840. By contrast, in the East, where white is commonly associated with death, Chinese brides will often opt for a red gown, as this is considered a prosperous color that brings good fortune.
Given the sometimes wildly different meanings behind colors, it’s important to know about these color meanings in order for us to better understand different societies.
Think you know color meanings? Take this quiz and find out:
The Color of Life Is Red
Red is the color of life, blood, and earth. It’s often used to symbolize primal energy, carnality, and passion.
Red is a universal color of life. A strong, hot color, humans commonly associate red with fire, aggression, and impulsion. In some cultures, red is a sacred color, connected with ritual and the purifying power of fire.
The Color of Love Is Pink
While the color of fiery passion is red, the color of love is pink. Pink is soft and gentle, and it’s traditionally associated with femininity, motherhood, and children.
Today, we might associate pink with femininity, but, until the 1920s, it was actually a masculine color commonly worn by young boys and men in the United States. In recent decades, pink has also been embraced by alt-culture and fringe groups, such as the 1970s punk movement and the late 20th century LGBTQ+ community.
The Color of Happiness Is Yellow
Yellow is symbolic of sunlight and the bloom of early spring flowers. It radiates warmth and joy while shedding the fiery, aggressive heat of red.
Yellow is considered to be a lucky color in many parts of the world. In Canada and the United States, families display yellow ribbons on the walls of their home to keep hope alive for loved ones at war.
The Color of Peace Is Blue
Blue, a cool and calming color, is often associated with the vastness of the sea and sky. It instills a sense of inner stability.
Blue is the coolest of colors on the spectrum, sitting opposite of orange on the color wheel. Its cool, sedate character has led to an association with rationality and conservatism across the world, with navy blue often being the color of choice for uniforms and government agencies.
The Color of Jealousy Is Green
Back in 1603, William Shakespeare referred to jealousy as a “green-eyed monster” in his tragic play Othello. These days, the idiomatic phrase “green with envy” is common in the West.
Aside from jealousy, green also has a universally positive association with vitality, being the color of fresh growth and vegetation.
The Color of Death Is Black
Black isn’t all doom and gloom. This darkest of colors was readily adopted by the fashion industry, treasured for its ability to slim the body and create a chic neutral backdrop to jewelry or accessories.
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Discover the Meaning of Colors Around the World
From yellow’s connection to royalty in China, to the ancient Egyptians’ belief that blue was talismanic, colors have a wide range of symbolic associations that range from the spiritual to the psychological. Read on to discover the meaning behind particular colors, and learn more about the cultural symbolism of these hues around the globe.
Almost universally, the color red symbolizes aggression, passion, and impulsion. This color’s primal association with blood has led to its cultural and literary associations with violence, sensuality, and romance.
There are some cultural variations for red, however, that stray from this primal symbolism. In China, red equates to good fortune. At Chinese New Year, children receive red envelopes (紅包, hóngbāo) which contain money. Chinese brides wear red gowns, in hopes of prosperity. In the West, red often takes on romantic connotations, being the symbolic color of St. Valentine.
Popular Shades of Red
- Crimson: strong, bright, and deep, generally combined with blue or violet.
- Maroon: dark brownish-red, its name comes from the French word marron (chestnut).
- Vermilion: a brilliant red or scarlet pigment, originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar.
Red is visually arresting and contrasts strongly against most other colors. As a result, countries around the world use it to signify stop in traffic lights, as well as using red as a warning color.
Most dictionaries refer to fire or blood in order to define “red.” It’s a versatile color that holds both positive and negative connotations. Because of the East/West discrepancy between good fortune and warning, East Asian stock markets use red to signify a rise in stock prices, whereas it signifies a fall in North American markets.
Additionally, in the West, red often carries associations with straying from the norm or bad behavior. To be “caught red-handed” means to be caught in the middle of a wrongdoing, while a “red flag” refers to a warning sign.
In South Africa, red is commonly associated with mourning. The red section of the country’s flag represents the bloodshed—both in terms of violence and sacrifice—that occurred during the country’s struggle for independence.
The color orange symbolizes sacredness and spirituality in Southeast Asia, with monks donning robes in a saffron hue to communicate their commitment to piety. In Western culture, orange is frequently associated with Halloween and the fall season, as well as being used as a highly visible color for warning and traffic signage. In most cultures, orange has largely positive associations, being a warm and optimistic hue that tempers red’s overt aggression.
Popular Shades of Orange
- Coral: vivid reddish-orange, like sea coral.
- Peach: orange lightened to a pale yellow, similar in hue to the fruit.
- Salmon: pinkish-orange, named after the color of salmon flesh.
Orange is the easiest color to see in dim light, as well as providing the ultimate contrast against blue sky or ocean. It’s no surprise then that life rafts, life jackets, and buoys are manufactured in a vibrant shade of “safety orange.”
In the West, orange is often associated with the fall and harvest time. When paired with black, orange represents Halloween, a time when the veil between worlds is supposedly thinner than usual. Some academics have suggested that orange and black were chosen for their opposing associations—orange being the warmth of life and black the darkness of death.
Western culture also associates orange with frivolity and amusement. Clowns wear orange wigs. Mythological paintings depict Bacchus—the god of wine-making, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy—in orange robes.
In Southeast Asia (namely Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar), Buddhist monks of the Theravada tradition wear saffron-colored robes. Monks chose this hue centuries ago mainly due to the dye available at the time, but the tradition has continued into the present and is considered a sacred, ritualized color.
There’s a phenomenon in the Netherlands called Oranjegekte (orange craze) that occurs during major sporting events, the F1 Grand Prix, and an annual holiday that celebrates the king’s birthday.
When the orange craze takes over the Dutch, they wear orange clothing and decorate their cars, houses, shops, and streets in orange. This started as a way to celebrate the Dutch royal family—the House of Orange-Nassau.
The color yellow symbolizes sunshine and optimism in Western culture, but its color meanings in Eastern culture are more complex. In China, people historically associated yellow with royalty. In Mexico, yellow traverses both life and death, with bright yellow being the color of both life-giving maize and death, an association inherited from the Mayan culture.
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Popular Shades of Yellow
- Canary: bright yellow, resembles the plumage of a canary bird.
- Gold: vivid yellow, sometimes metallic in color, associated with wealth.
- Lemon Chiffon: very light yellow, like that of a lemon-chiffon pie.
Need to grab a viewer’s attention? Yellow is the most visible color on the spectrum and the first color the human eye absorbs.
The yellow ochre pigment dates back thousands of years and was one of the first colors used in human cave paintings. For example, the Lascaux Cave in France has a 17,000-year-old painting of a yellow horse.
In the United States, Canada, and Europe, surveys find that people associate yellow with gentleness and spontaneity, but also with greed and duplicity.
People in the United States also associate yellow with cowardice. The phrase “yellow-bellied” is a term used to describe a cowardly person.
In China, yellow has strong historical and cultural associations. The first emperor was the Yellow Emperor. When the Song Dynasty ended in 1279, the emperor was the only person allowed to wear bright yellow. A sweeping yellow carpet also welcomed and honored distinguished visitors to China.
In current Chinese pop culture, however, yellow is now more commonly connected with the erotic—a “yellow movie” refers to films that are adult in nature.
Yellow is a sacred color in Polynesia, and considered to be the color of divine essence. In local languages, yellow shares its name with the curcuma longa plant, which is thought to be the favored food of the gods.
The color green symbolizes growth, new life, and nature in numerous cultures worldwide. However, green is one of the most conflicted colors, in terms of cultural meaning. Despite being associated with fertility and vitality, it is also frequently connected with sickness in the Western world.
In Irish and English folklore, the color green is associated with magic and deceit. Mythical characters, such as leprechauns and The Green Man, are known for their trickery and mischievous behavior.
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Popular Shades of Green
- Forest Green: vivid yellowish-green, resembles trees and plants in a forest.
- Lime: vivid yellow-green, named after the citrus fruit.
- Olive: a dark, earthy, subdued shade.
Surveys show that green is commonly associated with nature, spring, and good health in North and South America, Europe, and Islamic countries. Somewhat confusingly, green is also often symbolic of sickness and poor health in the same cultures. The saying “green around the gills” refers to someone who appears sick.
Although the origin of the phrase is lost, it’s likely due to the discoloration of one’s skin when they are nauseated. You will also notice that European pharmacies use green in their cross symbol signs, which encompasses green’s dual associations with sickness and healing.
In many cultures, green means go, with traffic lights turning green to show cars when to pass. Hollywood greenlights projects for production. We also see this in the United States immigration process. A “green card” is what immigrants receive when they have permission to permanently stay in the country.
Ireland is synonymous with green, being called the Emerald Isle because of its abundantly green countryside (a product of heavy rainfall). American country singer Johnny Cash even has a song about the lush landscapes of Ireland entitled “Forty Shades of Green.”
Green also symbolized magical beings in Irish and English folklore. For example, the Irish leprechaun wears a green suit. Legend has it that leprechauns pinch those who aren’t wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish holiday that celebrates their foremost patron saint.
Green is the traditional color of Islam and is associated with paradise in the Qur’an. This holy text states that the people of paradise wear green and sit upon green cushions. The Prophet Muhammad’s favorite color was green—the color he was buried in.
The color blue symbolizes calmness, authority, and peace almost universally. This soothing color recalls the peaceful expanse of sea and sky. In many ancient religions, blue took on a spiritual or talismanic quality, protecting the ancient Egyptians from harm in the afterlife and warding off evil spirits in Mesopotamia and Assyria. In the West, blue takes on authoritative and often conservative meanings. Members of state, police officers, and suited businessmen often wear blue.
Popular Shades of Blue
- Cerulean: a range of colors that includes teal, sky-blue, azure, and deep cyan. The name comes from the Latin word caeruleum, which means “sky” or “heavens.”
- Indigo: deep rich blue, close to the blue shade on the color wheel, named after the ancient dye.
- Periwinkle: light purplish-blue, named after the flower.
Blue is an expansive, introspective color, bringing to mind the sea and sky. Blue transcends many cultural boundaries, with its most prominent color symbolism being calmness and tranquility. This is also the reason most airplane interiors are blue, to comfort anxious flyers.
In the corporate world, blue also has an association with conservatism, being the chosen color of suits and uniforms, and in government organizations is often associated with stability and diplomacy.
No wonder then that the United Nations opted for blue as the color of its flag.
Blue has significant religious meanings around the world, and is frequently connected with spirituality and wisdom.
The ancient Egyptians associated blue with divinity and the sky. Amun, the chief deity of the Egyptian Empire (also known as King of Gods), would turn his skin blue in order to fly (invisibly) across the sky.
In Hinduism, gods such as Vishnu, Krishna, and Shiva are all depicted as having blue skin, symbolic of their connection to the cosmos.
The Nazar, or Evil Eye, is a blue glass bead. It traces back to ancient Egypt and the god Osiris. His followers believed Osiris’s eye had protective powers. Now, people wear the Nazar as a protective talisman.
Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries believe it wards off evil and brings good luck.
The color purple symbolizes mystery, magic, and wealth across many parts of the world. Some cultures, such as Italy and Brazil, consider the color to be symbolic of mourning and bad fortune. Historically, purple has a complex and sometimes negative color meaning. In recent decades, this ambiguous hue has taken on a new role as a symbol of bisexuality and the LGBTQ+ community.
Popular Shades of Purple
- Lavender: pale, light bluish-purple, often associated with softness and femininity.
- Mauve: pale purple containing gray and blue, named after the mallow flower.
- Plum: dark brownish or reddish-purple, named after the fruit.
In Europe and the United States, purple is often symbolic of magic and mystery, royalty, and religious faith.
Purple fabric used to be extremely expensive to produce. Producing just one gram of Tyrian purple required nine thousand small mollusks. Today, purple still retains its association with wealth, luxury, and exclusivity.
Purple takes its name from Tyrian Purple, a dye invented in the Phoenician trading city of Tyre around 1200 BC. The color went on to dye the clothes of the imperial classes of Rome, Egypt, and Persia, and only the rich and powerful could afford it.
Blending the primary colors of red and blue produces purple. As a result, the color often evokes a sense of ambiguity, mystery, or the quality of being open to more than one interpretation.
The United States views a state equally balanced between Republicans (associated with red) and Democrats (associated with blue) as a “purple state.”
In many cultures, purple is the color of death or mourning. Thai widows wear purple, as do devout Catholic mourners in Brazil.
Italy also strongly associates purple with funerals. Therefore, Italians consider wrapping a gift in purple paper poor taste, and brides avoid the color when planning their big day.
It is even bad luck to wear purple to an opera!
The color white symbolizes purity and innocence in the West. Brides traditionally don the color as a historic ode to virginity. In many Eastern cultures, however, white has a completely opposing color symbolism, where it references death and the supernatural. White is far from a blank canvas, instead being one of the most complex and culturally loaded colors in the world.
Popular Shades of White
- Cream: white mixed with a touch of yellow, named after the dairy product produced by cows.
- Eggshell: pale yellowish-white with little or no gloss.
- Ivory: white with a very slight tint of yellow, named after the material that comprises animal tusks and teeth.
The palest color, white represents perfection, purity, and neutrality in the West. Despite having no hue, white plays a surprisingly colorful role in religions around the world.
Christian children wear white when baptized as a symbol of the purification of their young souls. The Pope (head of the Roman Catholic Church) has worn white since 1566, to symbolize sacrifice and devotion.
Muslim pilgrims wear Ihram, a simple white attire intended to signify that before God, all are equal.
The Bedouin (Arab-speaking nomads of the Middle Eastern deserts) associate white with milk and the central role this food plays in surviving harsh desert environments.
Camel milk is a staple food for the people—highly nutritious, good for the bones, and a strengthener of the immune system. This explains why white is considered the color of gratitude, fertility, and joy.
Many are familiar with the Western tradition of brides in white dresses. Some believe this dates back more than 2,000 years to the Roman Republic, when brides wore white tunics to represent their chastity.
The modern trend came into fashion thanks to Queen Victoria, who in 1840 chose to wear a white lace gown instead of the coronation robes of royal tradition.
However, not every association with white is pleasant. In many cultures, it’s the color of death, ghosts, and phantoms (consider the English phrase, “pale as a ghost”).
White also represented death in ancient Egypt because of the washed-out color of the lifeless desert that covered much of the land.
The color black symbolizes death and mystery across a broad range of cultures. The darkest of hues, black is representative of all that is unknown in the world—the color of night and underground, the traditional domains of the dead.
Black does have positive aspects, however, despite often associated with death and the supernatural.
In Western society, contemporary fashion has reshaped black as a supremely elegant color, and led to the ultimate statement in chic Parisian fashion, the Little Black Dress.
Popular Shades of Black
- Ebony: dark black, related to the dark wood that comes from the persimmon tree.
- Jet Black: a glossy, deeply dark black, refers to the geological material “jet.”
- Sable: dark brownish-black, related to the fur of the small animal of the same name.
The darkest color, black is the result of the absence or complete absorption of visible light.
Europe and North America often associate it with mourning, magic, evil, elegance, and death. Many religions believe that the world was created from a primordial darkness.
Christian theology states that black was the color of the universe before God created light.
Kali (the Hindu goddess of time, change, and death) has black or dark blue skin. Her Sanskrit name translates into English as “She Who is Black” or “She Who is Death.”
In India, black is also the color of protection against evil. A black dot is painted under a person’s chin or behind their ears to protect against the evil eye.
The Japanese associate black with mystery, with all that is supernatural, unknown, and invisible, including death. In the 10th and 11th centuries, it was believed that wearing black could bring misfortune, so only renegades or those who had renounced material possessions dared to wear the color in court.
In the East, black is also symbolic of experience and skill. The black belt in martial arts is the highest rank one can achieve, for example.
China associates the color black with water, winter, cold, and the direction North. When the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, seized power, he changed the imperial color from red to black, stating that black extinguishes red (the color was later changed back to red in 206 BCE).
While many associate black with death, the ancient Egyptians positively connected black with life due to the rich, black soil that flooded the Nile. It was also the color of the god Anubis (ruler of the Underworld), who took the form of a black jackal and offered the dead protection against evil.
What Is the Best Color in the World?
Color is certainly a subjective topic, with everyone claiming their own favorite color (although according to most recent surveys, 80% of people will likely choose blue as their favorite hue).
As for what is the most popular color in the world, both cultural conditioning and the color trend industry has much to do with it.
Each year, color institute Pantone declares a particular pigment to be their much-anticipated Color of the Year. These trend-setting colors filter down into product design, fashion, and retail over the subsequent months, and certainly contribute to which colors we think about more favorably at a certain point in time.
Nonetheless, our long-standing associations with color—through cultural, social, and evolutionary conditioning—remain as the strongest factors in helping humans decide which is the best color in the world.
These associations are with us from an incredibly early age—children are more likely to draw villains in black, or choose cozy red hues when drawing a house, for example.
Conclusion: The Meaning of Colors
In this article, we’ve looked at how color symbolism plays a major role in shaping cultural experiences in societies across the world. The meaning of color is important in that it bypasses linguistic differences, serving as an immediately recognizable form of communication.
However, the symbolism of color can radically shift depending on where you are in the world.
While white is a bridal and innocent color in the Western world, in Eastern cultures it’s more commonly associated with death. Being aware of these geographical differences in the meaning of color can help us to communicate more effectively with other societies and understand cultural differences on a deeper level.
This need for sensitivity also applies to the spiritual meaning of colors, which can differ according to faith. The spiritual meaning of colors encompasses which colors are perceived to be positive or negative, protective or destructive, as well as which colors are symbolic of significant life events, such as births, marriages, and deaths.
While the meaning of color can vary across cultures and religions, its significance cannot be understated. We see and understand the world vividly in color. Humans can use it as a tool for social communication and deeper cultural understanding.
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