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White, Blanche, Blanco in Symbolism and History

White, while it may be the absence of color in one form is the combination of all in another… thus starts the wonder of white.

This page catalogues some of the ways our eyes see the color of “white”, which is the combined spectrum of light. It has a place in our weddings, interiors, and even in food. Like all hues, the popularity and use of it changes over time. Here, we explore the meaning and history of the use of white as a color in our clothing, art and interiors.

Let’s look at the physical and emotional impact of white  …

white as snow

White as snow

Science: How Does the Eye See White?

“We perceive color when the different wavelengths composing white light are selectively interfered with by matter (absorbed, reflected, refracted, scattered, or diffracted) on their way to our eyes, or when a non-white distribution of light has been emitted.”

“Color is light. Light is electromagnetic radiation and over a range of wavelengths it makes an impression on the human eye. This range of wavelengths is the visual spectrum.

When light hits an object some wavelengths are absorbed and others are reflected. We see the reflected wavelengths of light as color. When all the wavelengths in the visual spectrum are absorbed we see black and when all are reflected we see white. When some are absorbed and some are reflected we see different colors of the spectrum.”


Science Facts

  • People respond favorably to white, and it promotes trust.
  • White reflects light and is considered a summer color.
  • The fact that white is seen as such is due to a reflection of almost all incident light, so that no one hue is apparent.
  • “Snow is actually colorless. It appears white because light is so scattered when it hits the snow reflecting back all the colors in light. Depending on where you find the snow, snow can actually appear red, blue, black, or green.
  • As light hits the snow on the ground, there are so many locations for light to be reflected, that no single wavelength of light gets absorbed or reflected with any consistency. Most all of the white light from the sun hitting the snow will reflect back and still be white light. Therefore, snow on the ground appears white.” – Life in Color
  • White hair has lost its pigment.

The psychological effect: of the color white is to bring feelings of peace and comfort..” White can be used to give yourself a feeling of freedom and uncluttered openness. Too much white can give feelings of separation and can be cold and isolating”

White is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.

— Gilbert Keith Chesterton

“As White As Snow”

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Winter and Silver Shades

Winter white is an “off-white”: in more of the cream range, but not too yellow.Though it is a warm rather than cool tone. Ivory is the range of pale yellow tones to cream white. The term is used in textile, fashion, and interior decoration descriptions.

Hair is rarely called “white”, it is usually designated as silver. Perhaps due to the fact that for many it is mixed with gray or darker hair. It is hair that has lost its pigment.

Of the many shades of white, while a yellow cast is beloved in clothing and interior paint colors, it is eschewed in hair color. A blue cast is given through the use of shampoos which reflect the light in a more attractive shade.

Bonus fact:

The word ‘nixious’ means ‘as white as snow’

Meanings and Feelings: What is Lily-White?

lily white

Example of “lily white” in nature.

Positive: Hygiene, sterility, clarity, purity, cleanness, simplicity, sophistication, efficiency.

Negative: Sterility, coldness, barriers, unfriendliness, elitism.” –
So where may the expression “lily white” have originated? The original white lily used in art was the “Madonna” lily, Lilium candidum. This ancient flower was associated with innocence and purity. More modern associations of this term are more negative.

The Language of Flowers

Blanc Double De Coubert
Blanc Double De Coubert

What do roses of this type mean?

The Message of a White Rose

White roses have the meaning of “Purity, Innocence, Sympathy, Spirituality”.Early traditions also used white roses as a symbol for true love, but that has been replaced by the red rose in modern thinking. Commonly chosen as a traditional wedding flower in the bridal bouquet.

A Single White Rose symbolizes someone that wants to say ‘I’m sorry’. They can also send an “I miss you” message.

Clothing: White Dresses and White Weddings

vintage bride in white

Bridal White

Not all bridal gowns are a pure white, but in the popular mind, that is the color we think of first for wedding gowns. Some are shades of white ranging to ivory, and some brides choose to have tints of color.

Interestingly, this was not always the main choice for Brides. It only became popular after Queen Victoria of England led the way by her example.

The purity of white has come to symbolize the bride’s gown in European influenced cultures.

white bridal dress

Pearls are the Well-dressed Woman’s Classic

While today they are often chosen as Brides jewelry, there was a time when any well dressed woman owned at least one strand of pearls.

White pearls never seem to go out of fashion. They speak of the sea, and their iridescence flatters skin of every shade and age. Pearls seem to be in the domain of women, much more than men, perhaps for this reason. They are soft and can be scratched, but they only grow better with natural oils from the skin or in ocean air.

Pearl Gems

More About Those Pearls

Of their color, my favorite is a soft white, but Wikipedia reports:

“Earrings and necklaces can also be classified on the grade of the color of the pearl. While white, and more recently black, saltwater pearls are by far the most popular, other color tints can be found on pearls from the oceans. Pink, blue, champagne, green, black and even purple saltwater pearls can be encountered, but to collect enough of these rare colors to form a complete string of the same size and same shade can take years.”

PBS History of Pearls


Another reference to a shade that is a pleasing form of the color we are exploring is “pearly”. Symbolism associated with pearls are

  • innocence, beauty, sincerity, and new beginnings
  • water and the moon
  • wisdom and rare value

White Diamonds

Another gem described as white and used also as a modifier for the color is a white diamond. Like pearls, the color of the gem is usually white, but also comes in an array of other shades (yellow, pink, etc); although that is where the similarity ends. Pearl-white is soft, diamond-white is hard.

Couples commonly chose this gem for their engagement and wedding rings.. Because of its value, as well as symbolizing eternity, everlasting love.

A diamond ring for marriage, "eternity".

A diamond ring for marriage, “eternity”.

Rating diamonds by color:
The finest quality diamond is totally colorless. Diamonds are rated for color, among other qualities. Graded as a “D” color diamond a colorless diamond is considered absolutely free from any color, and is valued all over the world. Most diamonds in jewelery are white diamonds. A rating system is used for color in white diamonds, from “D” to “Z” ,with D being “colorless” and Z having a bright yellow hue.

Impurities and structural imperfections cause different colors in diamonds. Interestingly, some highly colored diamonds, which are rare, are most valued.

Trivia Facts about the Color White

Queen Elizabeth I in a white dress

Queen Elizabeth I

When White Was a Sign of Luxury

Laws called the “Sumptuary Laws” dictated who could wear the color white during Elizabethan times. Queen Elizabeth I wore white.

“People who were allowed to wear the color white during the Elizabethan era, as decreed by the English Sumptuary Laws, were lower and upper classes”

Apparently, the rich wore a pristine white which was difficult to produce and keep clean, while the poor could wear “the natural, cheap, off-white color of wool”.

Literary Expressions of Whiteness

-William Shakespeare ‘Hamlet’, 1602:

… What if this cursed hand

Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,

Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens

To wash it white as snow?

Shakespeare used snow as a symbol for purity and whiteness in several plays, in The Winter’s Tale and Macbeth, as well as Hamlet. We commonly hear this simile today.

A Few Colorful Phrases

An example of this expressed in literature:
(“lawn” is a type of fine fabric”.}

Lawn as white as driven snow,
Cyprus black as e’er was crow,
Gloves as sweet as damask roses,
Masks for faces and for noses,
Bugle bracelet, necklace amber,
Perfume for a lady’s chamber,
Golden quoifs and stomachers
For my lads to give their dears,
Pins and poking-sticks of steel
What maids lack from head to heel.

Did You Know these Beliefs?

  • White cats are a symbol of good luck in America.
  • A white flag is the universal symbol for truce.
  • White stands for mourning in China and Japan.

Many hobbies, and fashions show the fascination that people have with the effect of white. ‘Whitework’ embroidery, white gardens, white interior decorating schemes, white weddings, those topics (and more) are where we direct our lens to understanding more about this color, which is the sum of all colors.

Peace, comfort… these are two associations made, and there is something clean and refreshing about the color white. To further see the paradox of it, observe: “White as snow” means something very pure. Yet, “whitewash” can mean the opposite, with an ominous reference to there being something not quite right, or downright wrong and covered over.

Visually, when you want to refresh the eye, a strong dose of “whitespace” is just what is needed.


Summer holds an invitation to wear white

We love the cool feeling that white gives us in summertime, when the temperatures rise and colors burst around us. White holds a simplicity which works well with textures and intricacies of fabrics and lace… layers of texture never seem too much when done in a white on white palette.

Little Girls in White Summer Dresses

Girls in White Dresses

Whitework Embroidery


whitework embroidery

whitework embroidery

A beautiful embroidery technique in which the stitching is the same color as the fabric (traditionally white linen). Often used for baby christening gowns. Some of these are”

  • Ayrshire work
  • Broderie Anglaise
  • Mountmellick
  • Richelieu

Some of these embroideries are used in Bridal Gowns.

Eyelet Embroidery is a type of whitework.

In Landscaping: White Gardens

Completely or predominately white or cream colored blossoms, grey foliage, and white variegated plantings are the components of white gardens. The effect is cool and striking.  In her garden at Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville-West has one of the most famous white garden examples in the world.

Make a White Garden

A White Rose

Carnations are often included in rose arrangements. White color in a carnation denotes a pure love and its meaning is of admiration, honor and gratitude. It was often given to a teacher.

Additionally, white carnations can also stand for a wish for good luck.

Interiors: Painting It

color meaning header

Benjamin Moore paints

Benjamin Moore paint samples of some white colors available

All White Interiors

-Just don’t let the kids loose!
Everyone has seen them, because all-white interiors are so sophisticated in feeling, but many people live with color and let the fashion magazines have their pure white rugs and sofas.

All white kitchens and bathrooms, with their hard surfaces are popular ways to have an all white interior. Usually unrelieved by color accents or the interplay of textures, such rooms have a sterile feeling

Many Shades of Pale

Colors with white added are called “tints”, while colors with black added are called “shades”.
A lot of white can be used in a practical way as well, though. and lend a light filled interior with an open and fresh feeling. Beach cottages, Seaside houses, and Old Farmhouses all benefit from lots of white, used in paint and fabrics.

Interior Effects

all white interior room

White Interior decor

Decorators never tire of it, and all-white schemes are a perennial presentation. For the life of me, I cannot understand why white carpeting would be desired when you have a growing household of children. Yet, the draw of that pristine look keeps it a top choice in many new home designs.

White Color Scheme Decor

All-White Bedrooms

Want white painted walls for your monochromatic layered look of bed linens and boudoir accessories? Be prepared for myriad choices in the nuanced world of white, off-white, and creams. However, while called white, many paints have hints of pastels, gray, and neutrals shading the paint pigments.

Pleasing White Paints:

  • Benjamin Moore’s Moonlight White
  • Benjamin Moore’s Dove White

Using this scheme on walls is another proposition altogether from starkly minimal, monochromatic look. Many love white walls, and a satin or eggshell finish paint is easy to clean. The open feel, and the way this color on wall and ceiling can blend all the other elements of a room together makes it a favorite for interior spaces.

On the “light” side:

Mae West:

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

“Snow White” Fairytale


Snow White

“A little daughter, who was as white as snow, with lips as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony, and she was therefore called little Snow-White” so the fairytale goes, and the very pale skin is the origin of the name. Of course, “white skin” is not a pure white color, but simply very pale with less melanin, the pigment that colors human skin.



White Beaches of Destin, Florida

On the Gulf of Mexica is a gorgeous vacation location. Read more about this destination.

White Sands National Monument located in New Mexico

The White Sands National Monument is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield.

“The pure gypsum (hydrous calcium sulfate) that forms these unusual dunes originates in the western portion of the monument from an ephemeral lake or playa with a very high mineral content. As the water evaporates (theoretically as much as 80″ per year!), the minerals are left behind to form gypsum deposits that eventually are wind-transported to form these white sand dunes.”