BEING IN THE RED [ SEEING RED: PART 3]
“The effect of this colour is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness”.
An evolutionary perspective alone doesn’t shed light on why we see red used in so many different contexts. As discussed previously, our attraction to red appears to be part of our primate origins. It’s likely the eyes of our primate ancestors evolved to see red better in order to identify ripe food. This change to primate eyesight might have contributed to the increased focus on red as part of courtship signalling; this might have been a contributing factor to this evolution. As a result, humans find their chosen partners more attractive in red, when compared to other colours. However, the pervasiveness and versatility of the use of this colour from a semiotic and symbolic perspective suggest that our use of red has an extended palette of meaning from these physiological starting points.
Starting with the word, the etymology of English word Red is derived from the Old English rēd, its linguistic origins shared with other proto-indo European languages meaning ‘blood’. Red’s dominance in the visual spectrum in the western world is illustrated that in Latin the word coloratus or coloured also means red.
Culturally, Red is a colour that is polysemous; with many meanings we find most of the meanings revolve around emotive connotations: Love, passion, pleasure, energy, danger, courage, aggression, rebellion and energy. As with all signs, it’s how they layer with other signs that define their meaning.
Historically, red was commonly used to connote power and the sacred. From the medieval period, Red was coveted by the secular nobility and the Church in heraldry, decoration and clothing. As we find with other coveted colours of the time like blue, from the medieval period to today the use of red has increasingly been used for secular functions that have hierarchical status connotations. Blue has remained an authority and status colour, used for Military and civil uniforms (this theme will be discussed more in the following post).
On one dimension, red developed more symbolic connotations of pleasure, passion and energy. An example of this was the increasing use of the colour with theatres and entertainment areas through to the red carpets of Hollywood. Idioms such as ‘Painting the town red’ or an experience that is ‘red hot’ evoke this sentiment. The common associations of sexuality with red that fit within this symbolism are discussed in the preceding posts.
Red is also an active colour suggesting energy and activity. Dominant on the visual scale, it feels bright and warming. Connoting energy, it’s no surprise its the colour of sports cars, bikes and rockets. RedBull and Coke both use these associations in terms of energy and positivity through their brand experience. It has also been suggested that red means dominance from an evolutionary perspective when it comes to activity, with Athletes in the 2004 Olympics doing better than those in blue uniforms.
Activity and aggression are also linked through red, in terms of ‘seeing red’ or being in a ‘red rage’. We wave a red flag to enrage a bull to charge.Aggressive people like the Red Baron were infamous for suggesting being ‘hot blooded’ or ‘blood thirsty’.
Red also has many danger associations; think of the red phone that calls either the Kremlin or Batman. It’s the international colour of ‘stop’ in traffic and danger signs: code red. In Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Masque of Red Death, the allusion to a personified death’s visit to a party was reminiscent of Small Pox (also known as the red plague). Poe also alludes to the colour of the Devil coming for those that live overly decadent in this tale.
More broadly, in conversation we talk of red-ink or red-tape or being in the red as common sayings to identify negatives. It was perhaps President Obama not being definitive in his use of the term ‘red line’ , as something that can’t be crossed, that has created a blurred understanding in his policies in Syria.
Red as a colour of action has many rebellious and revolutionary associations. While the Red Revolution of the Soviets has been very culturally influential in driving this meaning; however, there were communist movements using red before Lenin such as the red shirts in Italy who followed Giuseppe Garibaldi. Who in 1843 used the red slaughterhouse shirts for his revolutionaries; there was a belief that red clothing hid blood stains, which is one of the common beliefs for the English Redcoats as a uniform.
More likely this was a message in stereo, of the use of the Red star in combination with Mao’s use of the colour (maybe more influenced by the association of red =luck in China) saw this meaning cemented. Interesting, communism is unlikely to be the origins of the Red Square’s name in Moscow, as red as a colour in Russia gets its meaning from beautiful, so it’s likely that the Red Square is an aesthetic description rather than from its proximity to the Kremlin since it predates this. The fame of Che Guevara as a revolutionary icon developed this rebellious red-symbolism deeper in more popular and contemporary culture. Not to forget that a lead formation of the rebels in Star Wars was ‘Red Squadron’, in which Luke brought down the Death Star in that iconic cinematic intergalactic revolution.
Red is an attractive and seductive colour, that conveys many different means in different contexts. These revolve around energy and emotion, symbolic of: power, sexuality, aggression, danger, action or rebellion. Out of all the colors it cues and represents the strongest emotional experiences for us. As such, we paint our culture with it as a mnemonic for these positive and negative experiences.