How Colour Meanings Change Around the World

“Life is indeed colourful. We can feel in the pink one day, with our bank balances comfortably in the black, and the grass seemingly no greener on the other side of the fence. Then out of the blue, something tiresome happens that makes us see red, turn ashen white, even purple with rage.

— so writes Alex Morrit in his book of short stories, Impromptu Scribe.

As just that short paragraph shows, colours can take on a lot of meaning. We talk about seeing red, feeling blue, turning green with envy and being tickled pink — and that’s just a few!

Colours can be associated with lots of different feelings, but those feelings can vary a lot from culture to culture…

Red

Zhang Ziyi as Jen Yu in the martial arts classic "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" wears the traditional red attire for a Chinese bride. Source

Zhang Ziyi as Jen Yu in the martial arts classic “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” wears the traditional red attire for a Chinese bride. 

In lots of countries across the world, red is often associated with exciting emotions like passion, love and energy.

The colour of blood is considered a lucky colour in China and along with black/blue, green, white and yellow, are related to the five elements of Chinese mythology. Red represents fire. You’ll see it pop up during celebrations like weddings (brides often wear it) and during holidays, when many people are given gifts of crimson envelopes holding money.

However, for some African countries like South Africa and Côte d’Ivoire it is the colour of mourning. Red can also be linked to things like anger (see the character from Inside Out) or warnings across the world.

Famous red T-shirt: The lifeguard tank top is instantly recognisable, partly thanks to Baywatch. More recently, the “Bazinga!” T-shirt worn by Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory has been a big hit.

Orange

Life of Pi Screengrab

The Colour Orange Orange is the symbolic colour of Hinduism. In “Life of Pi” the colour orange symbolizes survival and hope that God will save Pi. Source.

If you’re looking for a fun shade, orange is a good bet in lots of European and American countries. It’s associated with things like extroversion, warmth, energy and amusement.

The national colour of the Netherlands, is also considered spiritual as it has strong historical ties with several religions. It is important for Hindus, Buddhists and Protestants. Priests of the Theravada branch of Buddhism wear saffron robes that symbolise simplicity and detachment from material possessions. Apparently, it was the only dye available at the time and eventually became a tradition. In China in particular, orange was historically seen as the colour of transformation.

On the negative side? It can be used as a colour for warning signs or danger across the globe. It’s also seen as unconventional, which may work for or against you.

Famous orange T-shirt: The shirt of the Dutch football team is famous all over the world for its bright hue which is the national colour of the Netherlands that comes from the royal family: the House of Orange. 

Yellow

Screengrab from "Moonrise Kingdom"

Known for his symmetric shots, movie director Wes Anderson is also a master of colour. Screen shot from “Moonrise Kingdom”.

Like its cousin colour orange, yellow can also stand for fun and good times, but it sometimes has connotations of gentleness, optimism and spontaneity, as well. For the Chinese, yellow represents Earth and is the colour of happiness and harmony — similar to many Middle Eastern countries. Thai people consider it a lucky colour, and it also relates to royalty. In African countries, this hue is usually reserved for high-ranking people.

But yellow may not be a popular colour for T-shirts, especially in Europe and the Americas. Just six percent of people said it was their favourite colour in a 2012 survey.  It can also take on some negative meanings, like “yellow bellied” or “yellow press”. In France it’s a colour for jealousy. 

Famous yellow T-shirt: Charlie Brown wears a yellow T-shirt and so does Jeff Spicoli in the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Green

Green "Amelie"

In “Amelie” the colour green is meant to symbolise hope. 

As a colour found in beautiful natural surrounds all over the world, it may not be headlining news that green often represents the environment and nature. It can also stand for wealth, freshness or fertility. Sometimes it can even be luck! All pretty good stuff so far. 

But be careful if you’re printing green tees in Indonesia — it could bring bad luck! In some parts of the Asian country, it is believed that the colour represents the deity Nyi Roro Kidul, Queen of the Southern sea of Java, and she’ll get angry if someone wears it.

You’ll be okay with green tees in China, though, but not green hats. If a man walks out of his house wearing one, it means his wife has cheated on him (probably not something anybody wants to announce!). And you probably already know that in Western cultures it can mean jealousy and/or envy.

Still, overall green is generally considered a positive colour in most cultures.

Famous green T-shirt: The ones that pop up every St. Patrick’s Day and say “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” are almost always the colour of the Emerald Isle, even if the wearer is decidedly not from there. And it’s not exactly a T-shirt, but the Mona Lisa wears green!

Blue

Screenshot from "Spirited Away"

In Hayao Miyasaki’s “Spirited Away”, water represents entrapment and freedom, life and death.

This is a pretty classic choice around the world, as it has lots of positive meanings in lots of places. For Europeans and North Americans, blue conveys peacefulness, trust, authority and security. In countries like Greece, Turkey and Iran, you’ll find blue amulets to protect the wearer against the evil eye. Eastern European countries often associate blue with health-promoting activities. And let’s not forget the blue-skinned Hindu god Krishna, who represents divine joy and love.

Of course, it’s not all good. It can also be associated with being down or sad (see Sadness from Pixar’s Iniside Out), and it’s considered a mourning colour in Korea, Iran and Egypt.

Still, like green, most associations are positive. This may be because green and blue are colours found so often in nature (just look up!).

Famous blue T-shirt: Rocky Balboa’s famous “Win Rocky Win” T-shirt is pale blue as well as the Chelsea’s kit.

Purple

Screengrab from The Colour Purple

The title from the movie “The Color Purple” comes from a line on the book of the same name: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,”

Purple can be a bit of a mixed bag. While it can be associated with privilege, wealth, nobility and royalty in Western and Eastern cultures, it also stands for sorrow or mourning in places including India, Thailand and Brazil. Sometimes it means faith, too, though it can also be associated with mysticism.

Famous purple T-shirt: Darla Sherman, the girl at the dentist’s office in Finding Nemo, wears a purple T-shirt that says “Rock N’ Roll Girl”.

Pink

An American in Paris

Leslie Caron in An “American in Paris” directed by Vincente Minnelli, 1951.

In many countries, pink is considered a strictly feminine colour, although in Japan both men and women like the colour and in Belgium it used to be associated with baby boys (though that has changed now). Generally, it’s a colour of love and romance, as well as caring and tenderness. For Koreans, it represents trust. It may also be seen as a colour of childhood. 

Perhaps most importantly, it is the colour we wear on Wednesdays.

Famous pink T-shirt: Did you know that the winner of the Giro d’Italia gets a pink jersey?

Black

Screengrab of "2001: A Space Odissey"

Stanley Kubrick was a movie director that filled his movies with symbolism and hidden meanings. In “2001: A Space Odissey” black could represent mystery, danger and the vastness of space.

Another divisive colour! In many Western countries, black is strongly lined to death and mourning, as well as evil and bad luck. But in some Eastern cultures, it can sometimes represent wealth and prosperity. In many African countries, black means age and wisdom.

Still, when it comes to clothing, black is considered a classic and stylish choice. It’s also slimming!

Famous black T-shirt: The Rolling Stones T-shirt with the cover of the Sticky Fingers LP (you know, the one with the tongue). Just about any rock band will have a great black T-shirt, though!

White

Screengrab from "The Matrix"

White in “The Matrix” represents purity and the mysterious source.

White often represents the opposite of black, so in Western cultures it generally means purity or goodness. It can also stand for neutrality or cleanliness, as well as honesty. Brides often wear white in Western countries, as well as in Japan. But it can also be a mourning colour, like it is in some African countries and in China.

Famous white T-shirt: The I <3 NY tee, designed by Milton Glaser, is one of the most iconic white tees ever created. And when you’re competing with famous white tee wearer James Dean, that’s some stiff competition!


Did you enjoy this post? Then you’re in luck because there’s lots more from where this one came from! Just sign up to our weekly newsletter and get fresh-off-the-oven delivered straight to your inbox. All you have to do is fill in the box below with your details. That’s it!


Printsome is a creative t-shirt printing agency delivering across the UK, personalising t-shirts from London to Edinburgh and everywhere in between. For a quick chat about t-shirt printing ideas, just get in touch! 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *