Red Flags

The Cultural And Political Sway Of Red

Beyond being a festive signifier, the colour red has always carried cultural significance. Here are some of the memorable parts it has played throughout history.

The Cultural And Political Sway Of Red

Anchor image: Andrew Harnik/ Associated Press (Courtesy of Max Mara)

Since the discovery of ochre-coloured wall paintings made by early humans in a Mexican cave, red has always had a longstanding place in history, thanks to its symbolism and the myriad of meanings it holds.

There’s the use of red to signify love, passion and intensity — a simple-enough reason to explain why you’ll see more of this colour during Valentine’s Day. In Asian cultures, it’s esteemed as a colour of luck, while certain religions associate the colour red with blood, death and the concept of hell.

Then, there’s also the use of red in fashion. From Louboutin’s iconic red-bottom soles to Valentino’s signature shade of red, the fiery colour has always been present season after season. Even if it’s not resurging as a trend, you’ll find a silver of it somewhere, somehow.

And if you look around you, you’ll know immediately that red is the colour of the season, simply because it’s also closely tied to the idea of Christmas. Santa Claus, Rudolf, candy canes… it’s the collective effort of genius marketing that’s given red its own exclusive festive meaning. And we haven’t even started on its heavy usage during the Lunar New Year holiday and on Valentine’s Day.

Yet beyond the general usage of red to denote love or seasonal tidings, the colour has always played a quiet but present role in several history-making moments. It’s an easy way for people to showcase their influence, and for public personas to capture the attention of their audience. Here are four notable ways that red has made history, both politically and culturally.

01 | A symbol of protest

Jane Fonda knows that as a celebrity, she has the kind of power that can sway conversations.

So when she was photographed getting arrested one Friday (and several Fridays preceding that too), part of the conversation involved her uniform of choice: a red coat.

As a way of protesting the dangers of climate change, the celeb-activist donned a bright red jacket for her Fire Drill Fridays and stood on the steps of the National Capitol in an attempt to steer the conversation towards the environment.

According to Fonda, the red coat was also going to be the last article of clothing she would ever buy in her life. Each week, her protest ended with a photo of her being led away by police officers, triumphantly smiling at onlookers. That she would risk her status in Hollywood to make her voice heard is admirable, and will certainly go down in history — red coat and all.

02 | A show of royal power

Before her ascension to the throne as Queen, the then-Princess Elizabeth I had a portrait commissioned to showcase her influence in the kingdom. For the painting, the young royal wore a closely-fitted dress decorated with ornate embellishments and embroideries, but nothing stood out as much as the scarlet colour of the dress.

The message was clear: Elizabeth’s moral, political and social power was not to be questioned. The portrait, alongside other historical instances, lend a sense of authority and strength to the colour red.

The Cultural And Political Sway Of Red
Attributed to William Scrots, Elizabeth I when a Princess, 1546 – 1547 (Collection: Royal Collection Trust, UK)

03 | A code between suffragettes

While red lips aren’t particularly groundbreaking in the context of today, things were very different back in the early years of the 1900s. One of the earliest proponents of red lipsticks, Elizabeth Arden handed out red lipsticks to the women who descended into the streets of New York to demand voting rights in 1912.

This was a move that took plenty of guts, because up till then, women who wore red lips were seen as prostitutes, so the lip colour was considered socially unacceptable. When the suffragettes banded together, lips painted red, it sent out a signal of defiance against the trappings of social norms and the patriarchy alike.

04 | A political statement

There was another coat that made history at the end of 2018. In a heated televised conversation between President Donald Trump and then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi about a proposed wall that was to be erected along the southern border, the President threatened Pelosi that he would shut down the government if he didn’t get his way.

After an escalation of words, he was eventually forced to admit that if the shutdown happened, President Trump was to bear the full responsibility — a victory that was celebrated by Democrats.

The Cultural And Political Sway Of Red
Courtesy of Max Mara / Image: Andrew Harnik/ Associated Press

When she emerged from the White House, Pelosi wore a satisfied smirk and a deep red coat from Max Mara. The coat became so popular that the Italian fashion house had the coat reissued for the occasion.

In an interview, Max Mara’s creative director Ian Griffiths told reporters, “You develop an emotional relationship with a coat like nothing else in your wardrobe. I can imagine why Ms. Pelosi chose to wear it for this important moment, and I’m honoured.”

05 | A sign of unity

For women in the UK and the US, 2018 and 2019 have been rough years. Between the growing support against the swearing-in of US Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh to the protest against the proposed “Heartbeat” bill, women have thronged the streets decked out in red robes and white bonnets.

The choice of uniform comes from Margaret Atwood’s seminal book, The Handmaid’s Tale, which sets its female characters as sex slaves in a fictional future. The tale is set in a dystopian era, where the government is controlled by religious fanatics, and most women are no longer able to bear children. Women who are still fertile are then rounded up, dressed in red robes and sent to live with top-ranking officials as living incubators.

View this post on Instagram

Heads d̶o̶w̶n̶ up. 👆

A post shared by The Handmaid's Tale (@handmaidsonhulu) on

As the story goes, the main character takes it upon herself to rebel against her captors, thereby making herself into an image of resilience and power.

Easily the modern-day replacement of the famous Guy Fawkes mask, the handmaid robe is a call to arms by women who are making a united stand against the patriarchy

Related Stories