Red is subject to interpretation: all at once it can mean danger, power, piety, violence, good fortune, lust, sin. These emotional and narrative connotations are deeply embedded in cultures through the power of story. In The Secret Lives of Colour (2016), Kassia St Clair explains that some of these associations emerge from it being the colour of blood – it is primal as well as being tied up with who has the power to dish out life or death (think medieval kings and Roman generals adorned with red cloth). Red is the colour of our hearts beating, of luck and fortune, of holiness, but contrastingly it is also the shade favoured by the devil, harlots, and vampires. In stories, often “red is a promise that a rising up or a borning is soon to come”, owing to the hue of sunsets and sunrises; the journeys between night and day and night once more are tinted red (Estés, 1992: p99). The danger and potential violence of red is combined with this liminal state throughout folklore and fairytales, and the combination means that red clothing has been enchanted with its own distinct kind of magic. Red clothes are defiant and dangerous, worn as part of a treacherous or risky journey into unknown territory. This can be traced through literature (The Scarlet Letter, where wearing the red letter is Hester Prynne’s punishment for her sinful defiance against society), film (The Wizard of Oz’s ruby slippers, as well as Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes), and in the persistent retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Here, I’ll examine a few examples of the enduring magic of red clothing and explore these stories’ subtle variations in meaning.
In the folk tale of the red shoes*, a lost girl is adopted by a rich old woman with poor eyesight. She is cared for, but her dearly-loved and tatty red shoes are thrown away because the old woman is prideful and would only have the best things for her young charge. She takes her to the cobbler to buy a new pair of shoes. Gleaming in the window are a pair of bright red shoes, which she falls in love with and chooses to take home. The old woman cannot see the bright red hue of the shoes, and agrees, the cobbler selling them to her with a wink to the girl. “Oh, what beautiful shoes for dancing,” he says. She wears them to church the next day, and a soldier with a reddish beard says to her before she enters, “Oh, what beautiful shoes for dancing”. The girl cannot deny their call to dance, encouraged by these voices: she tries out a few steps down the aisle of the church but discovers that she cannot stop. She shocks the community with her out-of-the-ordinary scarlet shoes and scandalizes them with her out-of-place dancing. She dances and dances and dances until she is exhausted, but even then she cannot stop. Some time later, the old woman dies, and the girl cannot attend the funeral because the shoes keep her dancing. The girl is further punished for her transgression at the end of the story. the shoes cannot be removed and so she begs an executioner to chop her feet off with an axe, and she dies, or she leads a life of poverty and loneliness in a society that has wholly shunned her for her deviance and disfigurement. In some versions, her spirit is doomed to dance forever.
What the red shoes tale tells us is that red clothing is tied up with sin, wanting too much, vanity, and defiance against society. The girl was torn away from her well-loved pair of shoes to begin with, making her a sympathetic and tragic figure. In fairytales, shoes often relate to destiny and which journeys we end up embarking upon, so in this way her future is altered by the will of the proud old woman; the girl is later punished for this woman’s vanity and lack of foresight. The rich old woman could not see the red shoes and so could not guide her away from them or teach her the right lesson. The girl did not understand that the power of the shoes was greater than her own because she had not received the correct teachings, only sly hints from the cobbler and the soldier. But what is key to this story is the reaction of her community: they are shocked by the red shade of the shoes and the dancing, which are both out of place for the church. Prior to Hans Christian Andersen’s writing of the tale in 1845 (from which the above version varies), very similar stories were known as ‘the devil’s dancing shoes’ ‘the red-hot shoes of the devil’, enchanting the shoes with titular devilishness (Estés, 1992).
Yet the warning about red shoes and wanting more than what is considered polite echoes through to Hollywood, too. In The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy’s ruby slippers are gifted to her after she lands in Oz, squashing the Wicked Witch of the East. She is warned never to remove the shoes, and later the Wicked Witch of the West tells her that “those slippers will never come off, as long as you’re alive. But that’s not what’s worrying me – it’s how to do it.” Dorothy never wanted the slippers, like the girl in the red shoes tale, but her desperate wanting of a different life is what landed her in Oz and, literally, on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. In Frank Baum’s tale from 1900, the shoes were silver: some say that the colour red was only introduced to dazzle audiences in Technicolor, although Webster (2009) rejects the idea of red being chosen at random. Instead, she says, this was an intentional choice that gestures towards the long history of red shoe symbolism. After a long journey, and a discovery that her shoes had the power to take her home all along, Dorothy returns to Kansas, ruby slippers nowhere to be seen. Once returned, she is happy with her lot in life, glad to be home, no longer concerned about the neighbour that made her want to run away in the first place. She is placated by what she has learned and learns to only want what is in reach.
These stories, whether folklore or movies, quietly teach us about the danger of wanting too much, using red clothing as the symbol of this. Enchanted red shoes are used to teach us lessons. That brings me to Little Red Riding Hood, whose story has been retold and analysed endlessly. The red element was added by Perrault in 1697, perhaps to add an extra element of danger or warning to his tale; in previously written versions the girl wears gold or blue. Through its various permutations, this story can be used to teach all kinds of lessons the vary according to the minor points of the tale, which is why it has endured through various societies to reflect the moralistic zeitgeist. A girl enters a forest wearing a red hood, coat, hat or cape, carrying a basket full of things for her grandmother who lives in the forest. On the way she encounters a wolf. She often loses her way, resulting from his advice, and is late to her grandmother’s house. Then, she either escapes the wolf of her own accord, with help from her grandmother or a huntsman, is tricked by the wolf and joins him in bed, or is eaten, or then escapes from the stomach of the wolf… or any other number of combinations of permutations. The enchanted clothing here, the red hood, is closely intertwined with red as the sunset or sunrise. The girl is entering the woodlands, a stand-in for the unknown; the journey of becoming one’s self or transitioning from girlhood to womanhood. She is in a liminal state, and through the successful outcomes of the story, she sharpens her intuition and learns to trust herself.
In the Brothers Grimm tale (1812), specifically, her mother gives her all the warnings before she sets out on her journey: don’t deviate from the path, “walk nicely and quietly”, so that the wine is not spilled. But Red Riding Hood forgets herself whilst walking in the woods because of the encounter with the wolf, she talks and tells him all he needs to know to reach her grandmother, and he delays her by suggesting she pick flowers. Because she does not remember her mother’s warning to stay on the path, her grandmother and herself are later eaten. In this way, Little Red Riding Hood is punished for her deviance from ‘the path’ and her mother’s teaching, but through this hardship, she learns who to listen to and who to trust. She does learn a kind of obedience here, but she can discern who are the important teachers to listen to. Her mother and her grandmother are important feminine archetypes that teach vital lessons for her in this liminal state, and she learns to pay no mind to the untrustworthy, predatory, deceitful energy of the wolf. This is a story about who to trust, and about listening to teachings and gaining a sense of her own wisdom and self-knowledge. The setting is key, too: she begins to develop intuitive knowledge once she has trekked through the dark forest and reached her grandmother’s house, traditionally an important place of learning ‘women’s things’. In the Italian version, La Finta Nonna (the false grandmother), this meaning is emphasised: the word of the grandmother, the old feminine, is to be trusted but the words of those impersonating this wisdom or twisting it for their own gains should not be trusted (Calvino, 1950). For me, this story has a greater sense of empowerment than that of Dorothy in Oz, though the two stories have similar themes of tricksters and learning to trust one’s own inherent power. At the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch gives Dorothy and Toto all the direction they need: just follow the yellow brick road. This harkens back to the mother warning Little Red Riding Hood not to leave the path in the Brothers Grimm version of the fairytale. Both her and Dorothy enter the liminal state (the forest or the dream-world) as naïve and rebellious children, and then return as young women with a greater sense of self-knowledge, discernment in who they listen to, though with a slight sting for Dorothy as she also learns not to want too much.
The enduring power of red clothing as enchanted and powerful in stories plays into contemporary ways of dressing. Red shoes can be a middle finger up at expectations, or they could be a step-by-step reminder to not dull our own lives just because we worry what others think of us. They can be an assertion that we find common ground with these heroines but we want to write our own endings; we don’t want to end up back where we were, be shunned for our deviance, or be preyed upon by predatory energies, but it’s better to try and fail than never try at all. A red hooded coat protects us from the cold and its storybook quality helps us navigate the difficult parts of our own journeys. It’s through the journey that we learn, that we change, that we evolve; otherwise, how can we tell the difference between the grandmother and the wolf, or a good witch and a bad witch? Taking that first step into the woods or onto the yellow brick road might carry all the risk that these stories warn us about, but the distinct power of red clothing is in its courage. It carries a powerful sense of enchantment and self-actualization within it. It lends itself to boldness and defiance more than any other shade, and this is summed up neatly by Webster: “red shoes are about finding your feet and going somewhere else” (2009: p8). These items can be imbued with the same sense of defiance and deviance in today’s wardrobes, with a courageous sense of perseverance and self-belief.
So how is that sense of magic imbued in a piece of clothing, to take it from the ordinary and into something as magical as Dorothy’s ruby slippers? This has to involve some kind of energy being transferred into a garment, and next in the Enchanted Clothing series I’ll be looking at how this can go beyond intentions and symbolic associations we might have about a particular piece of clothing in our wardrobes (as I’ve discussed here and in my previous post about Samantha Pleet’s clothes). Magic can be imbued through toil in various forms of traditional women’s labour, and so next I’ll be writing about how spinning, weaving, mending, and cleaning clothing all have folkloric and spiritual entanglements with goddesses. Yet, it remains that red clothing will continue to be imbued with power as long as we keep telling these stories and drawing from this symbolic well, built upon thousands of years of red’s varied and rich meanings.
* my version of the red shoes story has its roots in the one told in Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, very abridged and with some small changes. Her story is Magyar-Germanic, from Hungary.
Hans Christian Andersen, 1845. New Fairy Tales.
Frank Baum, 1900. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Italo Calvino, 1950. Italian Folktales.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, 1992. Women Who Run With the Wolves.
The Brothers Grimm, 1812. Children’s and Household Tales.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850. The Scarlet Letter.
Charles Perrault, 1697. Histories or Tales from Past Times, with Morals.
Kassia St Clair, 2016. The Secret Lives of Colour.
Elaine Webster, 2009. ‘Red Shoes – Linking Fashion and Myth’ in Textile 7 (2)
The Wizard of Oz. 1939. [Victor Fleming, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer]
The Red Shoes. 1948. [Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]