Style & Stories / A Brief History of Red

Close your eyes. What’s the colour that you see? Red. There could be no clearer illustration of the primal nature of this colour. Since the dawn of time, it has symbolised blood and fire, life and death. It is the most powerful hue on the spectrum, and also the one with the most complex story.

Red has been with us from the beginning. The earliest cave paintings were made with red ochre, at a time when the colour was believed to have magical, protective powers. Red precious stones, fruits and flowers were placed in ancient tombs to restore the dead in the afterlife. Bricks and terracotta wares made from red, iron-rich earth have long formed the building blocks of our homes. Even the oldest surviving fragments of fabric, dating back to the 3rd century BC, are invariably dyed red.

Why revere red? Maybe our instincts always lead us back to it. The Greek philosopher Aristotle placed red at the centre of the chromatic scale, and that was where it remained until Isaac Newton relegated it to the end of his spectrum almost 2,000 years later. There is also the matter of its rarity and costliness. In the ancient world, the best red pigments were made from kermes, a red insect found on Kermes oak trees native to the Mediterranean region. These were dried and crushed; it took a great many insects to make a small quantity of dye, so red was precious. It decorated Greek temples and the walls of wealthy Roman villas. It symbolised fertility, love and immortality.

But red also had a dark side. Blood was traditionally held to be the food of the gods, and both Greeks and Romans sacrificed animals to appease their thirst. Such rituals marked red out as both divine and deadly. This conflicted symbolism continued into the Middle Ages. At this time, red represented both courtly love and the wickedness of devils and witches, who were depicted with scarlet faces and hair. There was a hierarchy of reds, too: authorities tried to ensure that only nobles wore the brightest shades, while peasants had to make do with duller dyes from the madder plant. Perhaps they should have been thankful. Prized mineral pigments such as cinnabar and realgar were loaded with poisonous mercury and arsenic.

The Protestant Reformation saw red fall from favour. The scarlet robes of Catholic cardinals came to symbolise the corruption of ‘Popish’ religion, both in England and across northern Europe. Red frescoes in English churches were whitewashed, and red stained glass defaced. All that was colourful was deemed immodest or downright bad. By the 17th century, Puritan England was blanketed in black, white and grey. The contrast is starkly visible in art: study the extravagant Renaissance reds of Raphael or Rubens, and then turn to the night-veiled browns of Rembrandt.

The 18th century did little to improve red’s fortunes. As Michel Pastoureau points out in his book Red: The History of a Colour (Princeton University Press, £32.95), it was a time of physical as well as cultural enlightenment. Architectural styles changed, windows got bigger and lighting improved. The most fashionable colours were pastels that complemented this brighter atmosphere, notably pink, which was first named around this time. Red’s delicate cousin was the darling of the French royal court, where Madame de Pompadour adorned everything in sight with her favourite ‘rose Pompadour’ shade. Only the peasantry continued to favour red garb for feast days and holidays.

Politics rescued the colour from the doldrums. French revolutionaries adopted the red flag and ‘bonnet rouge’ cap as signs of liberty – their aristocratic enemies, after all, were too busy with pink. Revolutionary Russia was saturated with red symbols, and served as a reminder of red’s age-old appeal: the Russian word for red also means ‘beautiful’.

Today, we view red in a more muted light; it always loses out to blue in polls for the most popular colour. But vestiges of its symbolic power remain. Around 77 per cent of all national flags feature red. It is an internationally recognised sign for ‘stop’ and ‘danger’, but it also protects and gladdens, in the form of humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross and the bright raiment of Santa Claus. Scarlet roses still symbolise love, and political parties of the left still declare their zeal with ‘Russian red’. It is still the most enchanting of colours.

Words by Amy Bradford

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