In architecture, white is most commonly used to establish contradistinction. The intension is not usually the celebration of the wall itself, but whatever is seen in front of, behind, or beside it. The most obvious example: the white gallery wall, drawing the eye to the painting.
The architectural writer Richard Padovan takes the idea a step further in his analysis of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. Padovan takes Mies's frequent reference to Thomas Aquinas as the starting point to an argument that says Mies is pointing to god with this building. God is not in the building, but the nature around it. By making his building so boring, like a white gallery wall, Mies is denigrating himself, contrasting his own finite imagination and means, with that of an infinite god whose existence—Aquinas had argued—is evidenced by creation.
Compare Mies's (feigned) modesty with Borromini's doomed attempt to build something worthy of god, in other words, something just as complex as creation. The interior of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, although it is just white, is aching with curves and with twists. Like other architecture of the counter-reformation period, it is trying to show us god's wonder, this time not in the trees all around it, but channeled through the hands of a servant. I know just how complex it is, from my own failed attempts just to draw it!
Even then, it wasn't complex enough for Borromini. The standard explanation for him eventually suiciding, is he thought he was unworthy and could have done more. He wasn't jealous of Bernini who used lots of colours other than white. He was down on himself, for not doing even more with his form.
In 2006 I published an article in the Cambridge journal, Architectural Research Quarterly, explaining why most of us can agree that daylight washing over vaulted ceilings in Modernist churches makes those spaces divine. It's not because gradated light makes ceilings appear to us as clouds, which are closer to heaven. It's because light illuminates roof forms to our eyes in a way that is analogous to The Idea of Good illuminating the thoughts in our minds, as Plato described in the Republic. We don't have to have read Plato ourselves. His thinking comes to us through the whole western intellectual tradition. Naturally, with that article, I referred to quite a few interiors that architects chose to paint white.
In starting with all these examples of white as a colour of godliness, I'm setting the stage for a moment of contrast of my own. When it comes to clothing, I don't see white as virginal or pure: the colour of wedding and christening dresses. I design swimwear. To me, the image of a woman in a white swimsuit, knee deep in the ocean, recalls the birth of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love.
Her name, Aphrodite, stems from the Greek word aphros, meaning “foam”, specifically surf foam. The story goes that Cronus severed the genitals of his father, Uranus, and threw them onto the sea. The surf foam they were floating on came alive in the form of the goddess Aphrodite. No one could resist her. She took countless lovers. She was the antithesis of deities in the Christian tradition.
Everything I said at the beginning about contradistinction still holds, only I'm not contrasting my finite imagination as a swimwear designer with the infinite wonder of god. I'm in awe of the infinite wonder of you, if you honour me by wearing my swimwear. In return I'll do all that I can, to create a blank gallery wall.