The symbolism of the colour white

Is white a colour? For some, this is a matter of debate. For our ancestors, the question did not even arise! Of course white is a colour, it was even one of the three basic colours of the ancient system (with red and black). Kandinsky said of it: “it acts on our soul like an absolute silence”. Today, I tell you everything about white.

White in history

White chalk was already used in prehistoric caves to represent white animals. In the Middle Ages, the pages of manuscripts were whitened, as they were naturally light beige. It was thanks to printing that it was necessary to represent the colourless, it was white that made it possible to represent what had no colour.

In Latin, a distinction was even made between matt white (albus) and brilliant white (candidus). In the past, the distinction between matt/glossy, smooth/rough, saturated/unsaturated was more important than the differences in colour.
As early as the Hundred Years’ War, the white flag was brandished to call a halt to the fighting, and it was attributed very early on the symbolism of peace.

In the 17th century, Issac Newton used a prism to break down the spectrum of white light. He finally showed that white was a mixture of light rays of different colours. This is why some people decided at that time that white, being a mixture of colours, could not be a colour in its own right.

Finally, from the end of the eighteenth century, white also became synonymous with women’s virginity: for reasons of inheritance and genealogy, it was necessary to be certain that newborns were indeed their father’s sons, so young women had to wear white dresses. Many of today’s brides choose a white dress to respect the old tradition, to reinforce the solemnity, even if it has lost its original meaning.

fleur blanche
Photo by Di Maitland on Unsplash

White in the world

In the collective imagination, white is associated with purity, innocence, peace and virginity almost everywhere in the world.

In Asia (China, Japan), however, it is associated with mourning and immortality.
The Chinese also have an obsession with white skin, the same as the little European lords of the 18th century who did not want to be confused with the peasants. To have white skin is to work in offices or administration, it represents your position in society.

In India, white is also the colour of mourning: it is the official colour of funerals, where everyone must be dressed in white. Outside these periods of mourning, white is the colour of the Brahmins, the highest Indian caste.

In Africa, white is the colour of God, of light and of righteousness. It represents a passage, a mutation.

The Psychology of White

As we have seen, white is associated with purity, peace and virginity. The snow has reinforced this idea because no other colour is so united in nature, be it the brown of the tree trunks, the blue of the sky, the beige of the stones or the green of the foliage. Having said that, one could say that this is a very European view: it seems that the Inuit have more than 50 words for snow and 10 for white (the shade of words, a palette of colours).

White is of course also the symbol of cleanliness, it has to be “whiter than white”! For a long time, fabrics were boiled in the washing machine and a shirt had to be immaculate. In the Middle Ages, it was almost more indecent to show up with a shirt that was not white than to show up naked! White is the colour of hygiene, as we see in many advertisements. In fact, most sinks, washbasins, bathtubs and even refrigerators have remained white, even though there are many possibilities for colouring them today.

Immaculate white like the Virgin… White, the colour of divine light, the colour used to paint angels, is perfection. In this way, it can bring serenity, clarify confused ideas. By extension, it is the colour of the beginning, of change, of the birth of the world. Do we not begin our lives in white swaddling clothes and end up with white hair? It brings emotional security.

Finally, in astrology, white refers to the moon and its silver reflections.

Photo by Amanda Marie on Unsplash

White in decoration

In decoration, white can be cloudy, pearl, milk, marble, enamel, cotton… and each shade translates a different emotion (softness, hygiene, coldness, minimalism…). It is a perfect binder that enhances the colours with which it is associated. When it is present, it lightens the other colours.

Of all the colours, white reflects the most light. White brightens and enlarges rooms. Last year, researchers created the whitest paint in the world: the interest is ecological because it helps to fight global warming.

White gives an impression of purity but also of emptiness. It can therefore give an impression of space and clarity. But be careful with the dose, because it can go from being soothing and meditative to being distressing. The total white look is very pretty on the pages of decorating magazines, but it does not give a warm interior.  White can be cold, insensitive, sterile. Moreover, any defect is ruthlessly spotted.

White likes neutral tones, such as light beiges or greys, but also pastels, which are an extension of its clarity.
In contrast, white also likes bright and fluorescent tones, which bring a bit of energy and pizzazz to immaculate interiors.
Finally, white also likes to be associated with black, for a very graphic contrast.

White in Feng Shui

In feng shui, white is associated with the metal element. It nourishes two areas of Bagua: the West and the Northwest.

If you need to nourish these zones, you can therefore bring white (or grey, silver or gold, the other colours of metal in feng shui) in the form of a flat surface or accessories.
Of course, to nourish these two zones, you can also bring in metal in the form of materials such as large metal clocks, pewter vases, copper objects, etc.

Even though white is a nice colour for decorating, there is a tendency nowadays not to dare to use colour and interiors are “too” white, which is not suitable for all areas and rooms.

Sources :
Le petit livre des couleurs – M. Pastoureau et D. Simonnet
DécoBook – Sophie Mouton-Brisse
Le Pouvoir des couleurs – Karen Haller  

la symbolique de la couleur blanche

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