As usual, I’m busily searching for all things red for the holidays. (I bet red poinsettias massively out-sell white ones!) And it got me thinking. What is it about red? Why do we always associate it with the holidays? Why through history has royalty walked on red carpets? Why is it the ceremonial color for so many civilizations right back to the Ancient Egyptians and Mayans? Why is it the color of danger and passion? And why does it give us such a lift – red lipstick, ripe strawberries, autumn leaves?
I didn’t know, so I thought I’d find out. Red in all its variety, hues and subtleties has a rich history in every sense of the word.
The History of Red Pigment
Red is the color at the very end of the visible spectrum of light right next to orange. We know that it was one of the first colors in prehistoric art. That red pigment came from ochre. The deadly vermilion pigment made from cinnabar, the ore of mercury, came next. Madder plant roots create a more benign red pigment. Kermes and carmine followed, both brilliant reds made from female scale insects. They were widely used in pottery, architecture and nobility’s clothing. In the 19th century came synthetic red dyes. After that, most of the natural dyes… died out. Carmine is still used today, but some people are allergic to it. If you want or need to avoid animal by-products, then it’s a problem.
The Meaning of Red in Different Cultures
Why does red have such an enduring appeal? Surveys show most people associate courage with the color red. In the Christian religion, it symbolizes martyrdom and sacrifice. Mary, Queen of Scotts wore a red shirt at her execution, to show that she was an innocent martyr.
And then, of course, there’s love. The red rose, the red heart on Valentine’s Day. We often see red associated with happiness. Chinese people relate red to good fortune and prosperity, making it the color traditionally worn by brides. But red is also the color of warning and danger. (Think about those STOP signs.) And in some African countries, it is the color of mourning.
The Emotional Response of Red
Whichever way you look at it, red elicits a strong emotional response—even from monkeys. It’s true. Red has an unexplained impact on our psyches. For example, during the 2004 Olympics, people wearing red received more points from judges.
A separate study showed that athletes were 13% more likely to get points when they wore red. And if you’re a waitress and want to increase your tips, wear a bright red lipstick. (Gwen PureMoist Lipstick would be perfect!) Another study found that men give 14–20% more to waitresses wearing red shirts!
Several studies have shown that red carries the strongest reaction of all the colors. It’s the color that attracts the most attention and is most associated with dynamism and activity.
But there’s something else that red does that no other color can achieve. All colors, except green, give the appearance of moving depending on their mix of primary colors, blue, yellow and red. Blue recedes so if you want to make a garden appear longer, plant blue flowers at the end. Yellow comes forward which is why a lot of road signs are yellow. Red rises.
Now you know why red carpets were laid for the feet of royalty—to give the impression that they weren’t mortal and walked on air. If you want to stand out in a crowd, wear red. In fact, if you want to stand out period, wear red.
From red ribbons on holiday wreaths to Rudolf’s nose, red elicits emotions we didn’t even know we had. It’s an irresistible color that life would be very dull without.
Show & Tell!
We want to know what the color red means to you. What does it make you feel, and how do you like to wear it? Show us your favorite red lipstick looks on Instagram. Post a picture and tag @janeiredale and #BeautyWithBrilliance.