The Color Red: A History in Textiles On Valentine's Day, red is everywhere. But how did that color become a symbol for love and passion ... and other things, too? A textile exhibition in Washington offers clues to the history of a hue.
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The Color Red: A History in Textiles

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The Color Red: A History in Textiles

The Color Red: A History in Textiles

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Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, when the color red turns up in mailboxes and vases to express affection, caring, and most especially love. Red hearts, red roses. And why red? NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked around.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Probably because it's the color of blood, the life force. Whatever our skin color happens to be, beneath the skin, coursing through our veins, there's red. And red has so many names: scarlet, crimson, cardinal, cerise.

Mr. KEN NORDINE (Vocal Artist, Chicago): Have you heard about magenta?

STAMBERG: Chicago vocal artist Ken Nordine has a marvelous time fooling around with various kinds of red names.

Mr. NORDINE: And what lavender said to magenta about the way fuchsia has been fooling around with Cerise, while russet is off to who knows where…

STAMBERG: Red has always been a power color, even some 400 years ago in 17th-century France.

Professor JOAN DEJEAN (Historian, University of Pennsylvania): It's always a color associated with palaces, with Versailles. It can be a very formal color like all that red, crimson velvet.

STAMBERG: University of Pennsylvania historian Joan DeJean says that Louis XIV, the Versailles' Sun King put a little red into every step he took. Here's how.

Prof. DEJEAN: He was a man who was very proud of his legs. He was known as having gorgeous legs and he wore all kinds of fashion that showed them off.

STAMBERG: Louis wore tight pants that ended at his knees and beautiful silk stockings. And…

Ms. DEJEAN: His shoes had quite high heels for a man. And he started wearing not just red heels, but really scarlet high heels.

STAMBERG: Soon nobles all over Europe were painting their heels red. Red was chic, flashy and expensive. That's because the color then came from a little bug found mostly in Mexican cactus, the cochineal.

Ms. REBECCA STEVENS (Curator, The Textile Museum): People made their living trading this dye. It was as good as gold.

STAMBERG: Rebecca Stevens is curator of "Red", the current exhibition at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Steven says when the Spaniards got to Mexico in the 1500s, cochineal became the New World's major export to Europe.

Ms. STEVENS: What they would do is harvest the bugs, scrape them off of the cactus plants, then dry them. And they were shipped in a dry form. It was just this little pellet. So they didn't know if that was a berry, if it was a bug, if it was a mineral. And the Spaniards spent a lot of time and trouble keeping that a secret to protect their sources.

STAMBERG: The bottom fell out of the bug market in the middle of the 1800s, when synthetic dyes were invented. But for centuries before that, red was only for the rich because it took so many insects to dye just a pound of fiber. At The Textile Museum, curator Rebecca Stevens points to a piece of 16th-century burgundy-colored cut velvet from the Ottoman Empire.

Ms. STEVENS: Probably, believe it or not, a floor covering.

STAMBERG: I would never step on that. Would you?

Ms. SUMRU BELGER KRODY (Curator, The Textile Museum): We shouldn't think about today's homes. We are walking in with our shoes and everything. Of course they would…

STAMBERG: Sumru Belger Krody is another Textile Museum curator.

Ms. KRODY: What you're looking at is a really high-luxury item for the court in Istanbul. So in that level, I think you don't mind stepping on it.

STAMBERG: Maybe that was the original red carpet. There were cultures where no matter how much money you had, only important people could wear red.

Ms. STEVENS: In Japan and Italy, other cultures in certain times, it was forbidden for ordinary people to wear red. So when you see a red dress or red for a cloth, then you realize that this is a person of high status.

STAMBERG: But people broke the rules all the time, Rebecca Stevens says. Some non-noble Japanese lined their kimonos in red or wore red underwear. You couldn't see it but you knew it was there, an early Asian version of Victoria's Secret.

(Soundbite of song "Red, Red Wine")

Mr. NEIL DIAMOND (Singer): (Singing) Red, red wine. Go to my head…

STAMBERG: Red is the color to get flushed on, with or without Neil Diamond. It can be a naughty color, red-light districts, bordellos; Satan wears it in various images. But oddly enough, it's also the much-used color of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ms. STEVENS: Red was associated with divinity. And if you look at renaissance paintings, medieval paintings, the Virgin Mary, Jesus have on red robes.

STAMBERG: Red for worshipping, red for shopping, singer Bono's campaign with merchants to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa. Red 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, curator Rebecca Stevens says. It's used quite deliberately.

Ms. STEVENS: I think that a textile is not dyed red by chance. Oh, I have a little extra red dye here, I'm going to make this red. No, you use red for a specific reason. Whether it's for love, for fertility, for happiness, you made it red on purpose.

STAMBERG: Back to France again, I know it's a hardship, where Madame de Pompadour - they named a hairstyle for her - that fashion-loving, fashion-setting mistress of Louis XV, fell in love with red a half century after the Louis with the red heels. Madame de Pompadour moved red from Versailles velvets to simpler cotton and chintz. In her various chateaus, she covered sofas and beds with red-colored stripes and prints.

French history expert Joan DeJean says Pompadour used red to make things cheerful and cozy to the very end.

Prof. DEJEAN: Madame de Pompadour died in a beautiful, comfortable armchair with red and white striped fabric.

STAMBERG: It was her chair to be comfortable in, Joan DeJean says, Pompadour wasn't feeling very well. So, she sat down in it and…

(Soundbite of song "Yes it is")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Vocalist, The Beatles): (Singing) If you wear red tonight, remember what I said tonight…

STAMBERG: For Valentine's Day, do wear red but stay away from red-striped chairs and remember to send a bright red card.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Yes it is")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) Yes it is. Scarlet were the clothes she wore.

MONTAGNE: For this Valentine's Day, offers favorite love songs and a bittersweet guide to the best chocolate. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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