The Color Red: A History in Textiles

16th Century Velvet Fragment i i

hide captionVery expensive to dye, red fabrics were historically a sign of wealth and status. Red textiles from throughout the ages, like this 16th-century velvet fragment from Turkey, are on display at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Textile Museum
16th Century Velvet Fragment

Very expensive to dye, red fabrics were historically a sign of wealth and status. Red textiles from throughout the ages, like this 16th-century velvet fragment from Turkey, are on display at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Textile Museum
Red-lined Japanese Kimono i i

hide captionIn some societies, the privilege of wearing red was reserved exclusively for the upper class. Yet many commoners wore red undergarments beneath their clothes. Some Japanese non-nobles lined the insides of their kimonos with the forbidden color, as can be seen in this kimono from the first half of the 20th century.

The Textile Museum
Red-lined Japanese Kimono

In some societies, the privilege of wearing red was reserved exclusively for the upper class. Yet many commoners wore red undergarments beneath their clothes. Some Japanese non-nobles lined the insides of their kimonos with the forbidden color, as can be seen in this kimono from the first half of the 20th century.

The Textile Museum

On Valentine's Day, red is everywhere. How did red become the color of love? To find out we turn to Red, a textile exhibition currently on display at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

The King's Red Heels

Four hundred years ago in 17th-century France, red was a color of power. French history expert Joan DeJean says red was "always a color associated with palaces, with Versailles."

According to DeJean, Louis XIV put a little red into every step he took.

"He was a man who was very proud of his legs," she reports. "He was known as having gorgeous legs and he wore all kinds of fashion that would show them off."

Louis wore knee-length tight pants and beautiful silk stockings. His heels — which were quite high for a man — were not just red, but scarlet.

Soon nobles all over Europe were painting their heels red. Red was chic, flashy... and expensive.

A Little Red Bug

Red was an expensive color in 17th-century France because at the time, the dye was made from a little bug found in Mexican cactus, the cochineal.

"People made their living trading this dye," says Rebecca Stevens, curator of Red, the current exhibition at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. "It was as good as gold."

According to Stevens, when the Spaniards got to Mexico in the 1500s, cochineal became the New World's major export to Europe. The Spaniards harvested the bugs by scraping them off the cactus plants and then drying them. The dried bugs, which looked like small pellets, were then shipped to Europe.

The importers in Europe didn't know whether the little pellets were a berry, a bug, or a mineral. The Spaniards, says Stevens, "spent a lot of time and trouble keeping that a secret to protect their sources."

The bottom fell out of the bug market in the middle of the 1800s, when synthetic dyes were invented. Previously, red was only for the rich who could afford the expensive insect dye.

In some cultures, the privilege of wearing red was reserved exclusively for the powerful. According to curator Rebecca Stevens, in some countries it was forbidden for ordinary citizens to wear red. When you saw someone wearing red in Japan or Italy, she explains, you realized, "this is a person of high status."

But non-nobles broke the rules all the time; some Japanese lined their kimonos in the forbidden color or even wore red underwear.

The Many Faces of Red

Red can be a naughty color — red-light districts and bordellos. It is both the color of Satan and the color of the Roman Catholic Church. Stevens notes that red was a color often associated with divinity; medieval and renaissance paintings show Jesus and the Virgin Mary in red robes.

Red is for happiness — Indian brides get married in red saris. Red for good luck — the one-month birthday of a Chinese baby is celebrated with red eggs.

Red is rarely an accident.

"A textile is not dyed red by chance," Stevens says. "No you use red for a specific reason whether it's for love, for fertility, for happiness — you made it red on purpose."

A Color of Comfort

Back in France, Louis XV's fashion-loving, trend-setting mistress, Madame de Pompadour, fell in love with red a half-century after the Louis who wore the red heels. She moved red from Versailles velvets to simpler cotton and chintz. In her various chateauxs, she covered sofas and beds with red-colored stripes and prints.

Historian DeJean says that Pompadour used red to make her rooms cheerful and cozy, up to the very end.

"Madame de Pompadour died in a beautiful, comfortable armchair," DeJean says, "with red and white striped fabric."

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