Red hot: Why the colour has always had a special place in history

Did you know it's one of the oldest hues used to make art?

Christian Louboutin's pop-up store in Mykonos. Courtesy Christian Louboutin
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Over the years, the colour red has been used to symbolise courage, passion, happiness, wealth, guilt, anger, war, rebellion. Humanity's fascination with the shade began early. Along with black and white, red is the oldest colour used to make art, dating back to prehistory. Palaeontologists believe this could be thanks to red's availability in nature, and they have found evidence to suggest that in the Late Stone Age, ochre (a red clay that gets its shade from its high iron-oxide content) was ground up and used to colour the body. Paintings made using red ochre have been found in caves across Africa, Asia and Europe – with some dating as far back as 16,500 BC.

It's not just the prehistoric era that was seeing red, either. Ancient Egyptians coloured themselves with ochre during celebrations, and women used it on their lips and cheeks – the world's first lipstick and blush, as it were. In the Neolithic Period, people began making a red dye called kermes by drying and crushing the bodies of female kermes (a scale insect). This was popular, especially with the ancient Greeks and Romans, but gradually lost out to other dyes such as carmine, also called crimson lake or cochineal, again extracted from scale insects.

With the demand for cochineal insects, red became a rather expensive colour that came to be worn by those in power. King Louis XIV of France was well known for his love of the hue, and often wore red heels. Regular people still wore it, too, but didn't have the privilege of wearing expensive insect dye. The colouring for their clothing came from the roots of the madder plant, which yielded a more brick-like shade but faded easily. It was in the 19th century that chemists were able to create a synthetic red that was cheaper and lasted longer than natural dye, leading to the demand for madder and cochineal ceasing completely.

In the East, China has a long history with the colour red, from making red pottery as far back as 5,000 BC to creating the first synthetic vermilion, a brilliant scarlet pigment widely used in art and lacquerware. Even today, red is regarded as the colour of joy and fortune in China, worn for special occasions and banned at funerals. Chinese brides occasionally wear red gowns and walk down red carpets.

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Christian Louboutin heels feature famed red soles 

The colour Chinese Red is so famous, it was adopted by world-renowned shoe brand Christian Louboutin, whose signature red soles came about after the designer felt his creations were “lacking energy” when converted from two-dimensional sketches to three-dimensional objects. He spontaneously grabbed his assistant’s red nail polish and painted the sole … and the rest is fashion history.

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