The first pigment used by human beings was red and was made by grinding hematite (iron ore) to make red ochre, a practice that dates as far back as 700,000 years, when it was likely used as body paint. As one of the three pigments used in cave art – the others were black and white – red was used to depict hunting scenes and to make hand prints.
The Romans used mercury ore, also known as cinnabar, to make vermilion, a colour worn by brides as a shawl, called a flammeum. Victorious gladiators and army generals were also painted head-to-toe in red in celebration.
Seven thousand years ago in China, red was used in pottery, as well as lacquerware, palace interiors and bridal attire, while the South American Brazilwood tree produces a zippy red shade called brazilin, after which Brazil was named. The Mayans, meanwhile, are thought to have painted their faces red during human and animal sacrifices. And people in India have also been crushing and boiling the rubia plant for centuries to dye cloth, while married Hindu women mark their foreheads with red.
The roots of the madder plant deliver a red dye, while the cochineal beetle produces a rich crimson when crushed. Although most dyes today are synthetic, carmine (a derivative of cochineal) is still used to colour food and make-up – which is something to consider the next time you eat a strawberry yoghurt.
Catholic priests still wear scarlet to denote early martyrs, and Spanish bullfighters also continue to wave red capes in front of bulls, despite the fact the animals cannot see the colour.
Perhaps because of its association with danger, red has long carried an element of the risque, making it a favourite on every runway, most notably the Valentino pre-fall 2019 show.