This Fall the streets will turn red. Already the shops in the high street show clothes in all hues of red. It makes me happy. It’ll bring warmth and colour in those many grey days we have around here. If people dare to wear it, of course. For some people find red threatening. The power the colour carries also means that about the first advice about professional attire is not to wear red, out of fear to attract hostility and aggression. In fact, that colour interpretation relates to that other Fall. Confused? Read on, all will become clear.
According to my favourite colour expert, Michel Pastoureau, the history of colour is always the history of the society in which it features. In this sense colour – and indeed its manifestations in fashion – is not superficial at all: it offers elements to understand society better. And one of the reasons why I like Pastoureau so much is that he always includes illustrations of materiality and craftsmanship to make the point.
Pastoureau’s work is complex and detailed. I can heartily recommend all his books: they’re full of fascinating stories and delightful insights. Let me share a few with you.
Nowadays about 75% of Westerners name blue as their favourite colour. To make us understand how remarkable this is, Pastoureau goes to great lengths to demonstrate that for most of human history it was red that was most preferred. The battle of the colours will take place later, let’s stay for a while with the supremacy of red.
Think of the caverns of Altamira for instance: they’re Unesco heritage because of the 150 drawings they contain, estimated to be some 15.000 years old and mostly in reds.
Also Unesco heritage: the amazing wall paintings in Pompeii (80BC) where the intense red greatly contributes to the powerful experience. Almost in passing Pastoureau points out that, contrary to what many think, the garments, the private houses but also the temples and the sculptures within were, in classical times, full of colour.
The first dyes were vegetal, including ochres, which turn colour when burnt, and the popular madder. The latter is a plant that carries the pigment in its roots. Which begs the question how humans got the idea to go searching underground for tinctorial matter?
Over the centuries animal colourings were added such as kermes and the New World cochineal, the story of which has been wonderfully written by the American historian Amy Butler Greenfield. In the middle of the 18th century an estimated 350 ton per annum of cochineal was exported to Europe, providing Spain which had the monopoly, with a revenue which almost equalled that of silver.
It goes without saying that garments dyed with cochineal were very expensive and thus became a symbol of power and luxury.
Pastoureau gives the materiality of colour a great deal of attention: he tells the stories of the successive chemical and technological advances in the craftsmanship involved. And he offers, to our contemporary eyes, surprising illustrations of that materiality.
For centuries brides at the countryside for instance would wear red, not of the cochineal variety of course – which was too expensive and also forbidden for ‘ordinary folk’, but the local dyers mastered the red vegetal and animal pigments the best. Red was in other words a good material choice for a radiating bride.
I also like the story of Louis XIV’s brother who allegedly introduced high heels at the 17th-century French court. The idea was to make up for the short posture of both brothers, which failed utterly because the new trend was taken up swiftly by all courtiers. Fascinatingly the heels were bright red – on the outside, which provides historical support to the failure of contemporary designer Christian Louboutin to obtain trademark protection for his signature red-lacquered soles.
Much less light-minded is the Church’s use of colour. In fact, the original Bible hardly contains colour references. It’s only over the centuries and across translations, especially in the vernacular languages, that the Bible becomes increasingly more colourful – in itself an illustration of how colour testifies of changes in society.
These changes resulted in an ambitious colour symbolism that from the 5th century onwards exercized its influence in many domains of religious life (liturgy and costume for instance), social practises (garments, ceremonies, heraldic arms and insignia) and artistic and literary creation. And that for about a millenium. That’s powerful cultural heritage indeed.
With regard to the colour that concerns us here most, the Christian symbolism was founded on two principal references, namely blood and fire. And each was considered in both its good and bad aspects.
Blood in its positive connotation is of course the symbol of life. Even more specifically, it’s Christ giving his blood who has saved mankind, thereby warranting eternal life. In his footsteps followed the Church’s martyrs who accentuated the promise of salvation and the community of believers. This red sanctifies, fertilizes and unites. It’s also the colour of the very powerful Christian concept of caritas.
But inevitably blood is also associated with violence and impurity. That’s why crime, sin and above all revolt against God were depicted in reds. Hangmen and torturers often wore red garments which had, of course, the additional advantage that their ‘activities’ were not too visible. In more general terms red became the colour of control, inhibition and sanctioning: think of a “red list”, the red pen used to correct exams, the “red line” not to be crossed. Red thus became very much associated with power and authority – which is also why the colour became the exclusive privilege of society’s elites, religious, political and economic.
Beside blood, it’s fire that features prominently in the Church’s colour symbolism. Biblical divine interventions are often accompanied by fire, as in the case of God speaking through a burning bush to Abraham who’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The most powerful image in this respect are the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Here we have divine love that regenerates, purifies and fortifies. Hence also the association with more mundane manifestations of seduction and love, remember the wedding dresses. Alas, fire is not always benign. Undoubtedly the strongest reference in the medieval mind is Hell, with the Devil as the personalization of temptation and evil. In that sense it wasn’t surprising that heretics were burnt – with no hope for salvation.
In sum, these four interdependent dimensions constructed a powerful symbolism that coloured the High Middle Ages very red indeed. But things were about to change.
A first crack in the red supremacy came from an unexpected rival: blue. The Romans disliked it, interpreting it as the colour of the barbarians. In the medieval West, it hardly features socially or artistically and it carried no religious or symbolic connotations.
This raises the question whether the promotion of blue was prompted by technical advances, newly discovered pigments for instance or better ways of mastering the dyes. Pastoureau argues that the ideological mutations preceded the chemical ones: it was the association with the Virgin Mary that set kings, later all nobility, to adopt blue.
Hitherto depicted in sombre colours, referring to her bereavement, Mary gradually sires a blue coat – which also becomes more bright and luminous. And that brighter blue, miniature artists use to paint the sky, which was black or golden before. This is also the period which saw the construction of the Gothic cathedrals with their famous blue stained windows.
The ideological promotion of blue through the Virgin, queen of the heavens, had some serious material consequences too. Blue upstarts so to speak broke through the dyeing guild’s monopoly and set up their own, rivalling organizations. Severely affected in their economic activities, the red dyers resorted to moral warfare to protect their position. Pastoureau tells of two instances where the red dyeing guild tried to convince their stained windows colleagues to represent the devil in blue – in an attempt to discredit the colour altogether. They failed.
Red’s downfall continued with new sumptuary laws and sartorial decrees that the civil authorities increasingly promulgated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The purpose was threefold: economic, moral and social. These laws and regulations fought against luxurious and thus unproductive spending. They also condemned new fashions which were considered frivolous, indecent, scandalous even. And above all they aimed to reinforce the boundaries between the different social classes so that all, in their appearance and ways of life, would remain in their stations.
The Reformation of the 16th century concluded the case. Not surprisingly in view of the powerful symbolism set out above, red to the Reformers represented the Papist Church against the many corruptions of which they so ardently fought. Red thus lost its positive connotations and became exclusively negative. Most particularly, red became associated with sin, pure and simple.
And this is where the other Fall comes into the picture. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Wisdom, it’s the sanctioning red angel who expulses them from Paradise. But with original sin also originated the need for garments. The fact that we wear clothes, is a continued testimony of our inherent sinfulness. Fashion is not only superficial and frivolous, it’s proof that we humans are flawed. It’s therefore right and proper for clothes not to express status, let alone pride: they must contribute to our awareness that we need to be modest and humble. The Reformers had much less faith in salvation or charity, the perspectives were bleak. Hence a much muted down colour palette, if not dominantly black.
Although in reaction the Counter Reformation re-enforced red in all its splendour, in more ordinary circumstances the West has actually adopted the more neutral palette of the Reformation. The dark colours that are dominant in office surroundings for instance still refer to a work ethic that since Max Weber is related to Protestantism. Pastoureau concludes more generally that red has almost entirely been banned out of our daily lives, including the public sphere.
This conclusion struck me to the point that I went out to test it in my home city. And indeed, there is surprisingly little red in Ghent (I’m discounting the reddish bricks and roofs, and publicity signs). And where it is present, it refers to the authority of the Church, and by extension to the old civic powers. Interestingly the positive connotations are in the majority: who wants to see it, finds evidence of divine and mundane love, charity and the power of the city. The references to violence and revolt are much more muted.
The only modern exception, where red was relatively recently introduced in the public domain, are the sea, rail and land traffic systems. Here too though the reference is old, with the red indicating control and inhibition.
Why green was introduced, is unclear: the symbolic contrast red/green is unprecedented historically. Some (in the book unnamed) countries contrast red and blue – which is a surprising reference to the battle of the angels and the devils. In Japan they use green but call it blue.
There is the material suggestion (also not in the book) that red is simply very striking to our eyes. This might explain why telephone boxes (now extinct on the Belgian streets) used to be red. We still have the red post boxes (but not in the author’s France).
Because Pastoureau pays so much attention to materiality, I don’t think he would disagree. But his conclusion is much more powerful: although red is no longer the preferred colour in the West, it remains the strongest colour symbolically. That’s why red still provokes such strong emotions. With reference to the historic symbolism we understand better why that is so. And it’s fun to adopt a different mindset and observe the battle of the colours.
So, do wear red clothes this Fall and decide whether you’re creating your own private Counter Reformation, or simply want to add more blood and fire to your life – in the positive meaning of spirit, charity and love, obviously.