History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

25 January 2008

Red: The Color of Romance?

Red is one of my favorite colors. I read The Virgin Blue (by Tracey Chevalier), a haunting, sad story that centers around the bad rap a red-headed woman had to live with in the 16th century—and it hooked my interest. I wanted to learn a little more about the color red.

Throughout antiquity, red has been used to represent danger, courage, passion, violence, and beauty. It is the first color the infant brain perceives. Neolithic hunters considered red to be endowed with life-giving powers and thus placed pounds of red ochre into graves of their deceased. Objects, animals, and trees were covered in red paint. Early Germanic warriors painted their axes and spear-catapults red to endow the weapons with magic powers. Roman gladiators drank blood of their dying adversaries to take over their strength. Sacred Egyptian mummies and the Dead Sea Scrolls were tinted with the color. Wearing a red ruby was supposed to bring about invincibility. Red bed-clothes were customary in Germany up to the Middle Ages and used as protection against the "red illnesses", such as fever, rashes or even miscarriages (note the red bed coverings in the painting Arnolfini Wedding by Jan Van Eyck, dated 1434).

The red rose is the symbol of love and fidelity, and fertility. Red wedding gowns, carpets, litters, scarves, and veils were (and still are) part of wedding customs in many cultures. Red is a symbol of romance and beauty. And when it comes to love and romance, who could forget the red rose? According to Greek legend, red roses sprouted from the blood of the beautiful Adonis when he was killed by a wild boar.

But somewhere along the way, red got a bad rap. The Virgin Mary's hair and the robes of angels were once depicted as red in medieval paintings. But by the 1500’s, Mary’s hair turned blonde and the angles wore white robes. At this point in history, the powerful European Christian church frowned upon any reference to the ancient religions—and their associated colors. The Germanic gods, especially the red-headed, red-bearded Thor, and his sacred creatures (the red fox, the red squirrel, even the skittish red robin) were depicted as evil and devilish.

Because sexuality was also associated with red, the color was demonized in Christianity. Red haired women were reputed to be witches and whores. The poppy became the devil's flower. The red rose--no longer assoicated with pure romance--became a symbol of Christ’s blood and sacrifice.

Yet with the exception of red hair-dye, the color remained an absolute favorite with powerful, the noble, the wealthy, and yes, the clergy. When the Spanish conquistadors discovered a new, more vibrant source of the color (a red pigment found in the guts of a tiny cochineal insect that lives on cacti in South America and Mexico), Spain ruled red. Red made the Spanish rich and they even killed unfortunate factory workers to keep the source a secret. Eventually, a French naturalist smuggled out live cacti from Mexico and started a cochineal ranch. Cochineal red dominated the dye industry until the 1800’s when synthetic dyes were produced.

I love red. I think red sells romance better than just about any color. Red-headed heroines rock, even though they may be viewed as clichéd. I read once that red-haired heros DON't sell. Do you think that's true? Anyone with red hair care to share your red-haired romance experiences? Do you think a red cover on a romance sells better than another?



Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Kathrynn. I've never really considered the origins of the color red before. Particularly how red became associated with evil, impurity and the devil. It's interesting that Mary Magdalene is often pictured with red hair. I may not have red hair apart from my highlights and what I add from the bottle, but I adore the color red. It's my favorite, and I always feel sexy, powerful and confident when I wear red. I own a red winter coat, carry red bags, and my iPod Nano is red! I'm always searching for the perfect red lipstick. I would definitely buy a romance novel if the cover were red.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Elizabeth. I started thinking about it, and you know, whenever I have to go to a work-related meeting, I tend to put on a red blazer or a red blouse. Weird. I do it not really thinking about it. Red definately empowers me.

The brain is a strange thing..er, well maybe my brain is especially. ;-)

11:31 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love this post, Kathrynn. And being a redhead myself I can relate to it all the more ... although I went the opposite way of the Virgin Mary. I went from blonde to red. By choice. And I am so much happier as a redhead, cheerfully indulging the passionate, feisty side of my personality that people tend to associate with redheads.

As a historical fiction author, I'm making something of a career out of telling the stories of notorious redheads ... Helen of Troy, Emma Hamilton, Mary Robinson ... and a host of others I have in the wings, including the woman I'm working up a proposal on (who must remain anonymous for now, because these days the air is too toxic to breathe her name).

Funny enough, red is not a good color for redheads to wear, unless they're a strawberry blonde with very fair skin. And when I try red lipstick I look like Joan Crawford -- not exactly the look I'm going for! But it's certainly a power color, and an evocative one. So I have a fabulously whimsical red purse that I bought to celebrate the release of one of my novels a few years ago that has a little drawing of a girl on it and the words "trouble maker." It makes a great statement, but makes it with a grin.

I tend to be attracted to the image on a cover, not necessarily to the color of a cover. But ... the background of my ALL FOR LOVE cover is a rich shade of red. So I hope all the people who would buy a book for its red cover will be tempted to explore what's between Mary Robinson's sheets.

The history of cochineal is a great Red story, too. All those squished bugs that gave their lives for rich dyes.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Red got a bad rap when (and I don't know in what work it first appeared -- for all I know, it was the Bible, but I believe that Shakespeare references it obliquely at some point) Judas was identified as a redhead. Lord knows who came up with that one, but once Judas was supposed to be deemed a redhead, other redheaded men (and this may be the genesis of the perceived unsexiness of redheaded romance heros) took the fall.

Where women are concerned, some cultures believed that red hair connoted a fiery temperament (bad news for them in a misogynistic society) and they were associated with witchcraft. Which got me thinking ... how did all those superstitions square with the ruling families of England, when most of the Tudors and Stuarts were redheads?

3:30 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Amanda,

I love the color of your hair in the photo---and have to admit, I am waiting the name of the woman in your next proposal. :-)

Wow, Judas was a red-head? Is that possible?

As for Tudors and Stuarts being redheads, good point. I always picture Elizabeth I as a redhead--and who would DARE to acuse her of being anything less than divine?

I read that the prejudices against redheads were predominately rooted in rural Europe in the middle and later ages (and still exsist today). I should like to think the cosmopolitan court embraced Elizabeth and many emulated her hair.

4:21 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Kathryn, I would imagine they either embraced the queen's red head or lost their own!! Amanda, your hair is gorgeous. I did not know about Judas being identified as a red head. Fascinating. Of course I knew all about the suspicions concerning red heads in eastern and central Europe. I happen to LOVE red, but it is not a color I can wear in spite of my nearly black hair. I think I have read a couple of books with red-headed heroes, but when I think about I believe they were all medievals.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

I do hope red is the color of romance, since my next book (coming out next Friday!) is bright red in color and called "The Seduction of the Crimson Rose". The heroine isn't a redhead-- in fact, her hair is black-- but my editor was quite adamant that there was something about heroine that called for the color red. I think it's because she's an imperious personality, and there's an instinctive connection between red and the imperial... like Elizabeth I and her red hair!

7:49 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Doglady...love "embrace the queen's head or lose their own!"


Ahhh, Laren, I love your title!
Yep, red goes with imperial and seduction and a fiesty romance heroine!

10:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If they don't sell, then how come there seem to be so damn many of them? My first heroine is a redhead, and come to think of it, so is the one I'm working on now. But neither of them is the classic romancelandia "feisty" redhead. LOL!

3:49 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think the perceived wisdom is that redheaded heroes don't sell -- but fiery-tressed females do. But I'm not sure how much store I lay by any of that. And I don't think I'm the readership for a subgenre of novels where hair color matters to sales. I can't think of anything stupider, so if this is true, many readers in Romancelandia are weirder than I thought.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've never noticed one way or the other whether or not romances with red-haired heroines sell. I know that Beatrice in MUCH ADO ABOUT HIGH SCHOOL, my YA which is a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award has red hair, as does the heroine in my paranormal chick-lit romantic comedy. I just like writing redheads, but other heroines have been blondes, and brunettes.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yes, I do believe it was red-headed heroes don't sell as well as the dark-haired guys, and blonde heroes don't do as well either (with the exceptions--Julia Quinn's heroes come to mind).

I get this general conception (misconception?) from one of several possible "you can write a romance" how-to books.

Also, red-haired male movie stars are not common--for the same reason?

9:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post! I love red. I have slightly auburn hair which my hairstylist makes more auburn :-). Every school I've gone to (grammar school, high school, college) has red & white as their school colors, which has helped give me an affection for the color. I wear red a lot, though I tend more toward the burgundy/claret end of the spectrum which works better with my coloring. I once chaired a gala benefit with a bohemian, belle époque theme (think Moulin Rouge), and I insisted we had to have simple arrangements of red roses for the centerpieces. They looked fabulous, set against creamy linens and lots of candlelight. I do think red tends to pop on book cover (Lauren, I love the cover for "Seduction of the Crimson Rose"--can't wait to see it on the shelf!). The "Secrets of a Lady" cover has a lot of red in it. I recently chose red as the main color for my new HarperCollins microsite, partly because it worked with the cover for "Secrets of a Lady" and the new cover for "Beneath a Silent Moon," partly because I thought the color worked well.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"Also, red-haired male movie stars are not common--for the same reason?"

Well, David Caruso is a prime example of that!

Red hair color tends to arrive in waves (pun intended). It was all the fashion at the end of the 19th c. for women to go red, and the same held true for the end of the 20th century. I have no idea why, not being a sociologist. Just a redhead. :)

Then again, everything has its cycles.

12:29 PM  

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