Seeing Red

Red lipstick. Red hair. Red dress. Red shoes. Red roses. Red stop signs. Red Riding Hood. Red Commies. Red heart. Red blood. Red cheeks. Red apples. Red-handed. Red light districts.

This potent colour is everywhere and is used by the fashion industry and cosmetic companies, as well as artists, because it is associated with so many strong emotions and has such visceral connotations. From red-headed women with fiery tempers and a penchant for nasty sex to a pair of thrilling red dance shoes, you know you’re in for an exciting ride the minute you have anything to do with red.

While living in Amsterdam, I worked at a shop called Rood (the Dutch word for Red) located in the Red Light District. There was just one criterion that the items we sold had to meet: they had to be red. The intensity with which our delighted customers reacted when they wandered into the shop was amazing. They would look around in wonder and excitement, touching everything as they gazed around and murmured in delight, “Wow, everything’s red!”

One day, the Amsterdam branch of the Red Hat Society – an international organization for older women who still like to suck the marrow out of life – wandered into Rood. With their elaborate red hats, they looked right at home.

For red heads, of course, everything is red all the time – and with that comes the well-known associations with danger, seductions and drama embodied by the likes of Queen Elizabeth I, Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball. There is a brilliant film made in 1932 entitled Red-Headed Woman. In it, the main character gets what she wants in life through her powers of persuasion and seduction (helped, of course, by her strawberry locks), and is often referred to as “that kind of woman”.

Once, I attended the annual Red Head Day, which takes place in Breda, a town about two hours away from Amsterdam. The highlight of the festival took place when the 3,000 participating red heads all gathered in a park for a photoshoot (see the photos taken on the day by Stephen McMullin).  The vast sea of auburn, strawberry, burnt sienna and rust-coloured tresses was truly awesome.

Meanwhile, at make-up counters across America and Europe, different shades of red lipstick offer a variety of nuances and the chance for women to express a plethora of personalities. A stark red gives you the glamorous 1930s starlet look and dark red offers a slightly more subtle, nighttime feel, while a pinker, rosy red gives off a daytime vibe and allows women to show off their girly, softer side.

Interestingly though, while red is so closely associated with sex, glamour, danger and passion in the Western world, other cultures award red other connotations. In China, as many of us know, red is associated with luck. In India and other Southeast Asian cultures, red is the colour of purity and is traditionally worn by brides. Meanwhile, in many African countries, it is associated with mourning and death. In yoga practices, red symbolises the base chakra, located at the bottom of the spine. The kidneys, bladder and pelvic area are all included in the chakra, which is connected to survival, courage and strength.

Whatever red’s cultural connotations and social uses, let’s hope its power and symbolism will colour our lives for many years to come.

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