Seeing red

It’s fair to say that no other colour stimulates a reaction in us quite like red. There are immediate, almost visceral, responses to seeing this shade ranging across the gamut from danger to passion (though passion is, of course, often dangerous…). The use of red on the highway to indicate vehicles must stop, in the form of stop signs and traffic lights (as well as on the brake lights of cars) is universal and has historical and practical origins, rather pleasingly. Red possesses a longer wavelength than other colours and therefore doesn’t scatter as easily, making it more distinct to the naked human eye. The green for go and red for stop may well derive from maritime rules governing the right of way where precedence is given to starboard ships (green) rather than vessels on the port (red or left) side. In medieval liturgical texts, instructions were provided in red ink, leading to the motto “do the red, say the black”. From this use, we have gained the term “rubric”, coming from the Latin word for red (ruber, rubri). I am pleased that this ancient use is retained in the otherwise soulless Microsoft Word, in which the tracking feature employs red for comments and deletions. It was also used in headings and to mark special feast days, which is why we still talk of a red-letter day. Even if signage might be crooked or askew, as in the pedestrian lights I snapped below in Paris this summer, on the rue des Archives, we always know that we need to proceed with caution.

ImageRed has traditionally been one of the most expensive and laborious colours to produce, which has led to its appropriation by the rich and powerful. The most sought-after reddish shade, carmine (from which derives crimson) was made from kermes insects for centuries, who would absorb the tint of the red oaks on which they lived, then was replaced by the blood of cochineal beetles from the New World. Many food dyes and cosmetic products still rely on the blood of the female beetle, which lives on prickly pears and is still harvested by hand  in Peru and Chile. In clothing, the use of it has trickled down. Originally the imperial colour, it became more widespread among the elite when Tyrian purple was preferred by Roman emperors (see my post here on this topic). Popes wore it until the sixteenth century until the election of Pius V in 1566 who, as a Dominican friar, preferred to retain his white habit. The cardinals, whose official colour was purple -we still talk today of a man being raised to the purple upon his elevation to the cardinalate- then took on red for themselves. While the papal colour is still white, any accessories have remained the original red – cloaks, shoes, capes, and headgear – at least until Pope Francis preferring to keep with black shoes, a sartorial single-mindedness that is not unlike his Renaissance predecessor.

ImageThe image above shows Raymond, Cardinal Burke dressed in the red of his rank, though the finery is meant to symbolize a reminder that these princes of the Church should be ready to shed their blood for Christ. To show that she was dying a martyr for her Catholic faith, murdered by her heretical tyrant of a cousin (Elizabeth I of England) , Mary, Queen of Scots wore a red dress to her execution. She had concealed this very political statement under an enveloping black cloak, only revealing her red dress at the scaffold in what must be one of the finest last-minute acts of revenge in history. As well as her martyrdom, Mary should be remembered as the first woman to play golf in history -at St Andrews-, an act for which her dour Calvinistic denizens never forgave her. At the same time as red’s positive religious connotations, it possesses markedly negative ones too. In the Old Testament, we read “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18; KJV). Towns have red-light districts and adulteresses were marked with a scarlet letter as a visible sign of their shame. In accounting, debits were written in red ink, giving us the expression to be “in the red”. In fact, red is probably the colour used more than any other in expressions, from red herrings to a red rag to a bull, from being a red flag to being marked by a red arrow. There is something about this colour that fascinates and appeals to us, reflected in its broad use and the ambivalence of the meaning and significance that we give to it.

ImageI am particularly interested in the use of red in clothes. Once the preserve of the mega-wealthy – scarlet was originally silk cloth from India, the most costly material but the price of red dye resulted in it becoming synonymous with the shade itself- it is used in the ceremonial costumes of the professions – judges, clergy, and academics. Holders of doctorates from the old universities in the United Kingdom have red academic dress, and the photograph above shows me wearing mine and looking like a member of some extinct, pompous avian species. This semester I will once again have the pleasure of teaching one of the loveliest novels in human history, Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, first published in 1678. I make it a point to re-read every text again that I teach, no matter how many times I’ve previously read it, and this will be the twenty-fifth time I will read the work again. The heroine, the eponymous princess, blushes at several points during the narrative. Rather than being a sign of her shame or embarrassment at her behaviour, the novelist turns this visual trait into something else: an indication of her innocence and unwillingness to collaborate with the superficiality of court intrigue. In this, the author is subverting the deep-seated erotic links that go with the colour and which still, largely prevail, and which have such cultural markers as the extremely sexual coming-of-age fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood to Chris de Burgh’s song Lady in Red (1986). Clearly, then, red does not cease to be both ravishing and perturbing.

Red cufflinks 005

Today’s cufflinks are made by Rafael Alfandary, one of the best known of the Canadian modernist designers, although he was born in Belgrade and moved to Canada in the early 1970s. Alfandary was a mechanical engineer who turned to jewellery making by accident when he made a necklace for his English teacher; he didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in his adopted country. I love the chunky yet almost delicate lines of this pair, which are crafted out of brass and Murano glass and most likely date from the mid-1970s.

Red cufflinks 010

The cabochon made out of Murano glass is very vibrant and has some lovely depths and interior detail, changing hue with the type of light. They’re an exceptionally beautiful pair of cufflinks, made even more special by the fact that Rafael produced very little jewellery for men. He died in Toronto in 2005 and during his last few years turned his hand to clock-making with his wife, Eriko, producing several dozen examples made in solid brass. Despite the ambiguous heritage of red, the subtlety of this pair inspires joie de vivre and leaves one wanting to, well, paint the town red.


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