A Point of View: The power of wearing red

  • Published
Model in red dress on catwalkImage source, Getty Images

Red is back in fashion this season. The colour's long been associated with power, but running alongside that is also a current of danger, as Lisa Jardine explains.

What should the stylish woman be wearing this September? The answer, according to the fashion magazines, is red. "Sanguineous shades hold a lethal fascination this season," writes Vogue magazine. "More dazzling than deadly, these reds are healthy, warm and vibrant, proving fashion's heart beats strong and sure."

Nowadays, where colour is concerned, we wear what we choose.

But that has not always been the case. In Tudor England successive monarchs tried to define social status by dress - Henry VIII passed four separate pieces of sumptuary legislation during his reign. A strict code governed the wearing of "costly apparel", and red was one of the colours most rigidly controlled. No Englishman under the rank of knight of the garter was allowed to wear crimson velvet in their gowns, coats or any other part of their clothing. A breach of this rule could result in the offending garment being confiscated and a fine of 40 shillings.

The issue was fundamentally who should be allowed to flaunt their disposable wealth. Red was by far the most expensive of dyes, and velvet the costliest of cloths. Red cloth in this period was dyed using four main dyestuffs - madder, kermes, cochineal and lichen dyes. Of these the most expensive was kermes, a dye made from the desiccated bodies of insects, which produced a luscious, deep crimson. Imported from Spain and Portugal, it was subject to heavy import duties.

Official paintings of Henry VIII portray him in his Parliament robes - the robes he wore to attend Westminster - "of crimosyn veluete". These images show the way red was used by the monarch to assert his authority and power over his people. Those who laid claim to the greatest power at court chose scarlet as the colour of their retinue's livery - the sumptuary laws permitted a person of sufficient rank to dress their entire household in the expensive fabrics and colours they were entitled to wear themselves.

Red played its part in the power games Hilary Mantel captures so vividly in Wolf Hall. At the height of his success at court, Thomas Wolsey's household livery was suitably sumptuous - and red. "His gentlemen, being in number very many," the records tell us, "were clothed in livery coats of crimson velvet of the most purest colour that might be invented and all his yeomen and other lesser officers were in coats of fine scarlet." After 1515, as a cardinal, Wolsey was entitled to wear the crimson cap and robes of that office, and did so with relish. His sartorial presumptuousness surely contributed to the king's growing belief that Wolsey was rising above his station, and to his eventual downfall in 1530.

Image source, ALAMY
Image caption,
A 1576 illustration shows the Knights of the Garter, arrayed in red

For those who did not dare flaunt their red clothing as Wolsey did, a discreet red lining to a sleeve could serve to let people know that you could afford to dress expensively if allowed to. Wealthy merchants, in particular, were prepared to risk a fine by flashing a rich red lining to a collar or cloak.

Not surprisingly, Henry VIII's coronation costume was a riot of reds. This is listed in his account books as including: "2 Shirts whereof one shall be of lawn the other of Crimson Tartaryn silk... a Coat of Crimson Satin largely opened as the Shirts been to the which Coat his hose shall be laced with Ribbon of Silk... a Surcoat cloth of crimson Satin furred with pure menyver... A great mantle of Crimson Satin furred with pure menyver... And a great lace of Silk with 2 tassels also of Crimson... a little hat or Cap of Estate of Crimson Satin ermined & Garnished with Ribbon of gold."

Thomas Wolsey (c.1475-1530)

Image source, Getty Images
  • Born in Ipswich, the son of a butcher. Educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, ordained around 1498 and made chaplain to Henry VII
  • Rose to power when Henry VIII became king in 1509. Appointed as archbishop of York in 1514, the pope made him cardinal in 1515 and the king appointed him lord chancellor
  • Henry delegated much state business to him over next 14 years, including near control of foreign policy. Wolsey used his amassed wealth to build Hampton Court Palace, and Cardinal College in Oxford (later re-named Christ Church)
  • Inability to broker Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon led to Wolsey's fall; arrested in 1530 and died on his way to trial

Over all of this he wore the obligatory scarlet velvet Parliament robes.

Image source, ALAMY

It seems, too, that the King had a personal fondness for red - it dominates his Great Wardrobe accounts, which detail his daily expenditure on clothing and household goods. He liked his wall-hangings and bed-furnishings to be red too. A wonderful range of names discriminate between the various tones and depths of the hue referred to - crimson and scarlet were the deepest and brightest, murrey was a purple red, sanguine a blood red, carnation and incarnate deep flesh-coloured.

But red had other, more negative connotations - especially when worn by a woman. The Book of Revelation made explicit, for early modern Protestants, the fact that the Church of Rome was a "scarlet woman", the "Whore of Babylon":

"And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication. And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth."

As a female queen, Elizabeth I was all-too aware of the symbolism that attached to her person. She chose lavish embroidery and costly gems rather than scarlet to convey her wealth and power on ceremonial occasions. The "Virgin Queen" played on themes of purity and nurture (the ideal female virtues) throughout her long reign. That meant richly embellished white satin gowns for formal occasions, the embroidery pointing up the positive symbols of female rule - the pelican for self-sacrifice, the sieve for chastity.

To dye for

Image source, Science Photo Library
  • Dyed fabrics found in Egyptian tombs provides evidence that people were dyeing cloths as early as 4,000 years ago
  • Until the development of synthetic dyes in the 19th Century, virtually all dyes were obtained from plants or insects
  • Red dyes include kermes and cochineal, both of which are obtained from insects (1kg of cochineal is obtained from 200,000 insects)
  • Woad and indigo are blue dyes, both obtained from the dyerswoad herb
  • Synthetic dyes were developed from coal tar, a by-product of industrial coke production

Associations of healthiness encouraged more ordinary people to add a little red to their outfit (which, intriguingly, today's Vogue still alludes to).

Scarlet wool was believed to play a significant part in a healthy lifestyle. Conduct books circulating in the first half of the 16th Century advised: "Let your nightcap be of scarlet and in your bed lie not too hot nor too cold but in temperance."

We cannot be sure whether the legendary scarlet petticoat and bodice worn by Mary Queen of Scots, and revealed just before her execution when her black satin gown was removed, was really a proud statement of her rank and Catholic faith, or simply a practical attempt to keep warm, and prevent a shiver on the scaffold from being interpreted as fear.

Image source, Getty Images

Which brings me back to the present, or at least to the 20th Century.

On the morning of 2 June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II set out from Buckingham Palace for her coronation at Westminster Abbey. She was followed every inch of the way by the BBC's television cameras. All along the route, respectful commentators described the procession in hushed tones. Inside the Abbey, the doyen of commentators, Richard Dimbleby, followed the ceremony itself from a vantage point high above the nave.

The entire seven hours of coverage was re-mastered and re-broadcast in 2013, on the 60th anniversary of the event. As I settled down to sample this historic piece of broadcasting, I was delighted to catch what seemed like a stumble in the polished commentary (not Dimbleby, of course). As Elizabeth II's coach emerged from Buckingham Palace, he intoned, "Here comes the young Queen," or words to that effect, "in her scarlet robes of state." In fact, however, as the camera panned to the fairy-tale golden coach, she could be clearly seen to be all in richly embroidered white.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Red dress on the red carpet: (l-r) Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington and Jennifer Aniston

I am pretty sure that the Palace decided the new Queen should not parade through the streets of London in scarlet, as her father and grandfather had done (both had travelled to Westminster in scarlet and ermine). It was Elizabeth herself who had instructed the royal dressmaker Norman Hartnell that her coronation gown should be sumptuous white satin, like the wedding gown he had designed for her six years earlier.

Even in the 1950s a woman in red could carry too many negative overtones. I have a grim memory myself of arriving at the Bordeaux home of my French pen-pal aged 11, in a neat red dress my mother had made me, and Dominique's grandmother pronouncing tartly: "Elle n'a pas honte" - roughly translated, "She's a shameless hussy."

Those overtones of what colour a woman wears are surely all but gone now. Even the Queen wears red on public occasions, and it seems to be one of the Duchess of Cambridge's favourite colours. I'm thinking of perhaps a red shirt myself this winter.

Image source, Getty Images

Some vestiges of symbolism surely do cling to scarlet, though. Women in red in fiction are still bold, dangerous, knowing. The bridal fashion magazines are enthusiastic about red wedding dresses this winter. Personally, I feel that may be a step too far.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.