Symbolic Meaning of the Color Red (History and Use)

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Right next to orange and just opposite violet on the spectrum of light, red is considered to be a beautiful color, heavy with both positive and negative symbolism. Here’s a look at the color red, what it symbolizes and how it’s used.  

Historical Use of the Color Red

Cave of altamira red bison

Prehistoric Art of Bison in Cave of Altamira, Spain

Red is said to be the first color that humans can perceive after the neutral colors white and black. According to the historian Michael Pastoureau, in his book Red: History of a Color, Red “is the archetypal color, the first color humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced, and broke down into different shades”.

  • Prehistoric Use – Evidence shows that the color red was used about 250,000 years ago by the Late Stone Age people who scraped and ground ochre, a type of reddish, earthy clay that contains iron oxide, and put it on their bodies as decoration. Prehistoric artists used this pigment for their cave paintings, which survive to this day.
  • Ancient Egypt: Red was also used in ancient Egypt where it was associated with health, life and victory. The ancient Egyptians would use red ochre to paint their bodies for celebrations and festivals. The women used red ochre to redden their cheeks and lips, much like lipstick and blush today. The Egyptians also began to use cinnabar, a type of toxic mercuric sulfide, to create shades of red.
  • Ancient Greece and Rome: Greeks and Romans used red extensively in their clothing, makeup and artwork. Cinnabar was especially popular in Rome, even though it was highly expensive at the time. In Rome, victorious gladiators would be covered in cinnabar and then paraded through the streets.
  • Middle Ages: Red was mostly used on the costumes of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and other important figures, as a way to highlight their importance. Renaissance paintings features a lot of red, used to catch the attention of the viewer. However, with the rise of Protestantism, some viewed red as a gaudy and sensuous color, which led to the decline of its popularity. Women with red hair were discriminated against, sometimes branded as witches or whores.
  • Modern Times: The color red has also played a significant role in politics, partly because of how visible it is. It was used during the Reign of Terror in France, when people were executed at the guillotine. In the 20th century, red was used as the color of the communist Revolution, representing communist parties from Eastern Europe to Vietnam. In books such as the Handmaid’s Tale, the color red plays a prominent symbolic role, signifying rebellion, suppression and the viewing of women as sexual objects. Red is also the most used colors on flags in the world, with around 77% of all flags having some red.

Today red is not as popular as it once was, ranking third after blue and green in the Western world. However, it’s still heavily used in industrial, political and fashion contexts due to its clear visibility and symbolic representations.

What Does Red Symbolize?

Girl with red dress
Darker reds signify confidence and sophistication
Girl wearing bright red dress
Bright reds signify passion and enthusiasm

There are many variations and shades of red including crimson and scarlet and each variation can have a different meaning. In general, bright, vivid reds, like scarlet, signify stronger feelings and strong action, while darker or lighter reds, like burgundy or maroon, signify more subdued feelings and may be viewed as more sophisticated and restrained. Red, like most colors, has both positive and negative associations.  

Red symbolizes the extreme. It’s closely associated with seduction, love, passion, danger, violence, adventure and anger.

Red represents strong positive feelings. These include love, passion, heroism, excitement, energy, attention, activity and power.

Red can also represent strong negative feelings. The phrase to see red literally means to get extremely angry. The negative aspects of red are dominance to the point where it instils fear, aggression, stress and danger.

Red is symbolic of love and romance. It’s closely associated with Valentine’s Day and can be seen in all the red symbolism used on the day.

Red symbolizes sexuality and sensuality. The color is sometimes associated more closely with lust than love. This symbolism can be found in many instances of literature, such as in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where Tess is often described as wearing a red ribbon, signifying her sexuality and foretelling her eventual doomed sexual encounter.

Red is also an important color religion. In Christianity red is the color of crucifixion, since it symbolizes the blood shed by Christ. It evokes the color of blood shed by Christ and by Christian martyrs. It also evokes the image of fire, which is a symbol of Christianity, representing the Holy Spirit. The color red is one of the main colors used at Christmas, representing the blood of Jesus. It also stands for the holly berries which had pagan symbolism in ancient Rome.

Red captures attention. Because it’s a dominant color that calls for attention, it’s ideal for use in signs and notices. Red is used in healthcare services and stands for one of the most important things in any healthcare facility: danger. It’s also used on traffic lights to indicate when to stop, and on firetrucks to demand alertness.

Red symbolizes hope and positivity. This may be due to the connections with the Red Cross symbol, but seeing the color red in certain contexts, can evoke feelings of protection, hope and positivity.

In prehistoric ages, red was seen as the color of blood and fire which are the forces of primal life and energy.

What the Color Red Means in Different Cultures

Chinese wedding
  • Red is the most popular in China and is said to represent fertility, prosperity, joy and happiness. It’s also symbolic of vitality and celebration. Chinese brides traditionally wear red since it’s believed to ward off the evil eye. During holidays and on special occasions, it’s common for red envelopes with money to be given out to friends and loved ones.
  • In India, red is considered the most powerful color. It’s an auspicious color worn by brides as a sign of dignity, purity and honor. It’s used in many sacred ceremonies as well as in Hindu festivals. Red henna and the red bindi signify a woman’s marital status.
  • In countries like Russia, red is associated with revolution and communism.
  • In South Africa, red is connected to loss and mourning. The South African flag features a red strip, representative of the violence and fight for independence that the country has gone through.

What Red Says about Your Personality

Different people tend to prefer specific colors over others, and this can say a lot about their personality. So, what does the color red say about you? If your favourite color is red, you may find that you exhibit some of the positive and negative traits listed here:

  • People who love red are generally identified as extroverts with an optimistic attitude. They’re also confident and courageous.
  • They usually enjoy being the center of attention.
  • They tend to radiate a lot of energy and are considered stimulating to be around.
  • Those who like red are ambitious, competitive and always like to be the winner. They’re usually achievement-oriented and being in second place just doesn’t work for them.
  • Patience is not a strong point when you’ve got a personality color red.
  • People who like red can easily get aggressive and are quite short-tempered. They flare up instantly, but they also calm down quiet quickly once they’ve got it all out of their system. The good thing is, they forgive and forget and don’t’ hold grudges.
  • Reds are great workers, but they don’t necessarily make a good boss. Their aggressive nature can be a problem in managerial positions. On the plus side, because they’re action-orientated, they’re great at meeting deadlines.
  • Those with personality color reds have a tendency to be impulsive and react to situations without thinking twice. It’s best to calm down a bit and count to 10 before taking action since it’s because of these situations that aggression and anger usually surfaces.

Note that these are just guidelines and generalizations. Just because you like red doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll exhibit these traits.

The Use of Red in Fashion and Jewelry

ruby wedding rings

Red is a glamorous, stylish color and when used in fashion or jewelry, a little goes a long way. Even a small red gemstone will make a statement and be visible. This is why wearing red isn’t for someone who wants to blend into the furniture.

Red gemstones look beautiful on all skin tones and easily suit minimalist or maximalist styles. It’s associations with love and romance makes red an ideal gift for a loved one. Some popular red gemstones include:

  • Red diamond – the rarest of all colored diamonds and the most expensive
  • Red ruby – the quintessential red gemstone and one of the most valuable
  • Garnet – the more affordable substitute to red ruby
  • Tourmaline (or rubellite) – an expensive yet popular gemstone for regular wear
  • Red zircon – a natural rare gemstone that’s somewhat soft
  • Red agate – a banded gemstone that’s ideal for bohemian or casual jewelry styles
  • Red topaz – a durable, valuable gemstone that’s also fairly affordable
  • Red beryl – considered the rarest gemstone on earth and from the same family as emerald and aquamarine
  • Carnelian – the red variety of chalcedony and a gemstone used since ancient times
  • Red coral – organic soft gemstone from the seas

Some say that red tends to make women and men more attractive to the opposite gender. This is especially true for women, hence the red dress effect. This term refers to when a woman wearing a red dress is considered more sexually appealing than when wearing other colors.

In the popular romantic movie Me Before You, Emilia’s red dress causes William to see her in a new light, prompting him to say, “I just want to be a man who’s been to a concert with a girl in a red dress”. He also tells her, “If you’re going to wear a dress like that, you have to wear it with confidence”.

Man wearing red tie

Red is a unisex color and can be worn by men, but it’s best in small doses. When men wear red, it sends signals of power, dominance and status to others. A man in a red shirt might just look gaudy, but incorporating the color in other ways, such as with a red tie, ties the look together and gives a sophisticated, confident look.

Wrapping Up

Red is a color of extreme feelings, from positive to negative. It’s a color that signifies danger, fear and aggression but also love, hope and positivity. To learn about the symbolism of other colors, check out our related articles:

Symbolic Meaning of Black

Symbolic Meaning of Green

Symbolic Meaning of Purple

Symbolic Meaning of Pink

Symbolic Meaning of White

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