The color of good and evil, of life but also of danger, of courage but also of prohibition. The history of red is eventful and exciting like few others, it is a story about human culture, symbols and beliefs. It is, in short, a contradictory narrative with constant plot twists. And it is also a long story, because few tones have accompanied humans for as long as this one. That is why, more than a color, it is the color.
We all carry it so deep inside that, even if we don’t realize it, it is omnipresent in our lives. In dau al deu it is one of our preferred colors when we make our hand-printed fabrics. Its vividness and richness of nuances, and its elegance and versatility make it indispensable in our eyes. But when we put aside our daily relationship with it and forget for a moment about our tools, our designs and our vegan handbags, then we see its historical importance. It opens the door to a fascinating journey through time.
The first color
Michel Pastoureau (Paris, 1947), probably the most prominent historian in his field, recalls in Brief History of Colors that red was the first. It was the one used in cave art when there were no buildings, no writing and almost no humans. It is true that this privileged place was due to the fact that it was the easiest pigment to produce, but when humanity evolved this color continued to be the king.
In ancient times, there was an ancestral chromatic system in which “white represented colorlessness, black referred to dirt and red was color, the only one worthy of the name. Its supremacy prevailed in the whole West“, summarizes Pastoureau. It was so indisputable that in Latin coloratus and in Spanish colorado they serve to designate, precisely, this tonality. In Russian, the words meaning red and beautiful belong to the same root.
Red, symbol of luxury
In Rome this was the color of war and of the god Mars, the symbol of virility and power. The emperors wore it, although not in the most abundant version but in the most extremely exclusive one. Only they could dye their clothes with a tone of purple red extracted from a very rare mollusk from the Eastern Mediterranean. The pigment was so precious that, when at the beginning of the 20th century the Austrian chemist Paul Friedländer wanted to produce it with the technique used thousands of years ago, he only obtained 1.4 grams, enough to dye… a handkerchief!
Although by the Middle Ages the formula for that technique had been lost, red continued to be synonymous with power. From the 13th or 14th century, the Pope and the cardinals, who until then had dressed in white, officially adopted it as a symbol that they were willing to shed their blood for Jesus Christ. Unofficially, as a sign of their position at the top of the political and social pyramid. In one of those paradoxes with which history often presents us, it was also the color of the devil.
The history of red is the history of a symbol. In antiquity and the Middle Ages represented the power, later, the revolution
But the lower class also felt it as their own, although it is true that in other tones and pigments. Pastoureau recalls Little Red Riding Hood, whose first known versions date from the 11th century and which, in his opinion, reproduces the ancestral chromatic system: a girl dressed in red brings white butter to her grandmother who wears black. The scheme was reproduced in other stories: Snow White receives the red apple from a witch dressed in black.
At that time, the dyeing of fabrics was a very important activity, so it was strongly regulated. In many cities, the craftsmen who dyed fabrics were only licensed for a certain color. Since their work was very unhealthy, even by medieval standards, they were located far from the center. Sometimes real pitched battles broke out between those of one color and those of another, who were accused of polluting the waters. Fortunately for us, dyeing and printing are less dangerous today than they were then.
When the Reformation came, the Protestants considered red a symbol of a past to be pursued. At the same time, another competitor, which until then had been almost impossible to obtain, entered the scene. It was blue, a pigment that was now beginning to spread, albeit at prohibitive prices and, of course, within the reach of only a few.
Throughout the Western world, red lost part of the preeminence it had enjoyed since time immemorial. Not even the blood of nobles and monarchs resisted this push. Blue blood -the violet vision of the veins through the pale skin thanks to not being exposed to the sun- came to mean status and privileges.
Pink and blue
And since the history of colors is also a tale of sexism, the one that until then had been a symbol of virility, came to be used more by women, and blue, the new standard of power, became typical of men. It is not a coincidence, as Pastoureau points out, that later those two colors mixed with white became typical of girls -pink- and boys -blue-.
And how does that color of emperors, cardinals and fables end up being a synonym of communism? The historian explains that in the times of the French Revolution a red flag was raised in Paris to indicate that, in the face of concentrations prohibited by law, the security forces could intervene to prevent them. In 1791, in a protest against King Louis XVI, the mayor raised it and the repression ended with the life of 50 people who later would be considered revolutionary martyrs.
A revolutionary symbol
The color of the repressor became a symbol of the insurgency. Even in the 1848 revolution there were those who claimed the red flag as the emblem of France, instead of the tricolor one. Therefore, it is not surprising that Russian revolutionaries adopted it in 1918 and later Chinese communism did so in 1949.
Every little thing we do every day, every piece of our daily mosaic carries centuries of culture and history with it. At dau al deu, when we print our designs we don’t do it with that thought, of course. But if we stop to reflect we realize that it is fascinating to know where we come from and the richness of what surrounds us. That red and its history is more things than the branding of a soft drink or the tone of sports cars.