How White Came to Be Synonymous With Clean and Good – Facts So Romantic

White has a physical purity. White light contains roughly equal amounts of every color in the visual spectrum, and activates all three types of cone cells in our eyes related to color. As a result, we perceive materials that don’t absorb color, and reflect light back to us, as achromatic—white.

The union of white and purity in Western culture may have its first roots in religion. That’s how Kathleen Brown, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, sees it. “Historically, white is one of the ways men of the cloth signified their calling,” Brown says. Later, this association with religious purity evolved into bodily purity. (“Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness,” declared John Wesley in an 18th-century sermon.) Brown’s book, Foul Bodies, chronicles cleanliness in Europe beginning with its colonial expansion, and in early America up to the Civil War. Cleanliness, she says, was signified by a growing profusion of white undergarments, worn against the skin beneath the outer clothes, and then spilling forth in ruffled cuffs and collars. The undergarments were seen as having a cleansing power, the stains they collected a sign that they were drawing dirt from the body.

Caterina de Medici 1519-1589. Engraving in Le Plutarque Francais, Mennechet edition,…

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