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Thursday, 31 May, 2001, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
We the purple
Tory leader William Hague visits a school
"Purple, the girls love it"
No matter what their colour of politics, it seems purple is steadily becoming the party leaders' shade of choice.

It was once so simple. If men wanted to look as sober and solid as a bank manager, on went the blue tie. A red tie, meanwhile, signalled the wearer wanted to cut a more radical dash.

Charles Kennedy
"Plain, stripe or polka dot?"
American men's magazine Esquire calculated the rot set in in 1997. As the Dow Jones climbed ever higher, Wall Street came alive with lavender, lilac and mauve.

As purple ties swept the trading floors and boardrooms, veteran pundit Frank Deford declared that the craze had its limits: "The day you see a politician wearing purple, is the day we have a truthful person in politics."

Three-way tie

Tony Blair, William Hague and Charles Kennedy may well be flattered by Mr Deford's sartorial rule of thumb - all have donned purple during the election campaign.

However, the creep of purple into the British political palette is no recent development, both main parties have been fighting over the hue since the last election.

Tony Blair accepts a red rose
"Don't they come in purple?"
Licking their wounds after their defeat at the hands of "New" Labour, the Tories undertook a brand audit. A panel of experts suggested altering the party name to "Modern Conservatives" and going big on purple instead of Tory blue.

Not shut out in the race for purple, Labour gave the colour an outing at its 1998 Blackpool conference - though sparingly.

Of all the event's many speakers, only leader Tony Blair was bathed in the regal, violet light. That Mr Blair had selected a colour long associated with the opulence of kings and emperors did not pass commentators by.

Purple all the rage

Pundits were less in awe the following year, when the Bournemouth stage was liberally dabbed with purple. The Irish Times suggested the design had a "hippy" look and (horror) the shade of purple chosen was decidedly close to a Conservative blue.

Tony Blair
"That purple balloon will go great with my tie"
The party faithful have also raised eyebrows over this slide along the colour spectrum. At Labour's 100th birthday bash last year, some revellers were perplexed when purple balloons joined the traditional red ones falling from the ceiling.

Purple owes its new-found popularity to the fact it's a modern, "user-friendly" shade, says Pat Henshaw, a senior consultant at the Colour Me Beautiful styling agency.

"It's a fashion colour and one with associations to the new millennium."

Red alert

Though the official party colour, red is an assertive hue which should be used with care so as not to hector the electorate, says Ms Henshaw.

Purple is more politically neutral (just examine the BBC's Vote 2001 branding), and faltering to boot. It is known as a "universal", meaning whatever your colouring there is a shade of purple to suit you.

Charles Kennedy on Breakfast With Frost
"More doctors, more teachers, more purple"
Anthony Edwards from the Guild of British Tie Makers is more cautious about the purple fad.

"It suits most people and I would guess style gurus have told the leaders it will make them look regal and trustworthy, but it can make you look anaemic."

Mr Hague is too fair to carry off purple, he says, and the strain of office has given Mr Blair a washed-out look. "Purple seems to make him look ill".

Fashion statement

For those who think it's all a tad trivial, Mr Edwards has proof that the humble neck tie can be an important political barometer. He charted John Major's tie choice from 1992-7 and concluded the bigger the polka dots on the PM's blue tie, the more important the speech he was about to make.

"When Tony Blair won the last election he began to wear a blue tie. Maybe he was embarrassed by this and switched to red, but wasn't happy with that either. Purple is a mixture of both colours."

William Hague visits a school
"The style bible says: 'Purple on blond doesn't go.'"
Mr Edwards holds up the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown as a model of elegance for his decision to reflect the seasons in his choice tie colour.

"Politicians seem to be dressing to conceal their real characters. Perhaps they try to be themselves and wear brighter colours, but it seems they're frightened of giving something away if they do."

So purple may not be the colour of "truthful" politics afterall.

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