Red is the color of blood, lipstick, Mao Tse-tung’s book of communist aphorisms and the lights in the districts where prostitutes walk the streets. It is the color of fear, as borne out by Italian horror films and by the red alerts and Red Scares of the Cold War. French writer Stendhal assigned the hue to passion and romance, under threat by the artifice of society. Here is an idiosyncratic tracing of red throughout history.
In ancient Greece prostitution was not only accepted but celebrated for its therapeutic benefits. Hetairae, hooker specialists, were the most beautiful and intelligent women in the land. In fact, the only way a woman could obtain real social freedom was to join the ranks of the hetairae, who signaled their profession by wearing bright lipstick. While many Greeks, men and women alike, wore an assortment of cosmetics—made from subtle concoctions of sheep sweat and crocodile dung—only the prostitutes were allowed to really cake it on. They painted their lips with wine and extravagant red dyes. Some historians surmise that, prior to those Hellenic harlots, Middle Eastern prostitutes rouged their lips to make the mouth look like a vulva, indicating a willingness to give oral sex.
While red lips have long been associated with prostitution, the term red-light district did not enter common parlance until 1894. The phrase may have come from a famous brothel in Dodge City, Kansas, called the Red Light House, or perhaps it came from China, where long-ago bordellos announced themselves by hanging red lanterns. Whatever the case, love for sale is a decidedly scarlet extravaganza.
The term cosmetic comes from the Greek kosmos, or “order.” But despite their prim linguistic origin, beauty aids have a long and bloody history. For centuries the primary ingredient in cosmetics was hazardous lead. In ancient Rome the upper classes painted their faces with a foundation made of white lead, then dabbed their cheeks and lips with a little red lead to suggest a healthy flush of blood rushing to the skin’s surface. Of course, the lead poisoned their actual blood, causing sickness, insanity and death. Some historians suggest that widespread lead poisoning contributed to the great empire’s demise.
But the Aphrodites of the world did not learn their lesson. In the 16th century, when Elizabeth I was queen of England, her regal pallor inspired a fashion craze. Women who could afford them applied unguents made of white lead and vinegar, and soon enough, makeup was not required to attain the desired paleness—the contaminated blood in their veins did all the work.
Today’s beauticians and dabblers in cosmetics may think they’re safe from the follies of their predecessors, but a 2007 study revealed that trace elements of lead can still be found in red lipstick.
In the 1960s, giallo—Italian for “yellow,” the color of popular pulp fiction books—came to denote a cinematic horror genre filled with creative dismemberments, eroticism and liberal bloodletting. One of the genre’s prototypical films is Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), which puts the title colors on full display. As a masked killer rampages through a house filled with lipsticked models, the camera races from red-painted mannequins to low-cut black-lace dresses. The final shot of the film reveals a red phone dangling against a black backdrop. Bava’s protégé, Dario Argento, went full-on crimson with Deep Red (1975)—the final shot simply a puddle of blood.
Argento’s highest-grossing film is The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), the story of a serial-killing rapist. The film is named after the real-life psychosomatic illness caused by viewing art, first described by French writer Stendhal after he visited Florence. Stendhal favored meditative psychological examinations over the outré shock that made Argento’s name. Still, both artists have been the subjects of censorship: Copies of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black were burned in Brazil during a 1964 coup, and Argento twice made the 1980s “video nasty” banned film list in the U.K.
In Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical A Little Night Music (1973), the licentious Fredrik Egerman considers which books might make his new virgin wife a little more “friendly.” He quickly deduces that “Stendhal would ruin / the plan of attack, / as there isn’t much blue in / The Red and the Black.” Sure, Stendhal’s novel never gets particularly racy—not “blue” enough for Fredrik’s machinations, anyway—but The Red and the Black isn’t exactly devoid of spice. The provincial hero, Julien Sorel, cuckolds a mayor and beds a marquis’s daughter, actions that land him in a heap of trouble.
Under Stendhal’s rubric, Sorel can advance in society by pursuing either a military (red) career or one in a clerical (black) order. But red and black have traditionally been just as useful in identifying a worker in the world’s oldest profession. In medieval Europe, prostitutes were ordered to wear caps “half red, half black” in order to be easily recognized. Seventeenth-century strumpets wore red stockings, while early-20th-century ladies of the night wore black ones. And today in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, women pose in small street-side cubicles illuminated by red-and-black lights, displaying their goods to window-shoppers.
The titular colors of Stendhal’s Red and the Black announce a dichotomy: unruly passion or acceptance into a declining society. But sometimes the dichotomy emerges after a novel is published. To wit: British author Peter George alchemized his acute fear of nuclear war into the cautionary tale Red Alert, a vision of how the apocalypse might be readily achieved in this new world of splitting atoms. Not an inkling of satire infiltrates the novel’s deadly serious pages. But filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was also a nucleomituphobe (someone afraid of the bomb); he even considered moving from New York City to Australia, a country he thought relatively safe from attack. When Kubrick and George began working on the screenplay for Red Alert, Kubrick decided the movie had to be a black comedy.
When George did not share Kubrick’s sense of the absurd, a new writer, Terry Southern, came aboard. The film became Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The title illustrates the difference between George and Kubrick, who saw the comedy, however black, in nuclear destruction. Whose vision won out? Let’s just say time has been kinder to Dr. Strangelove than to Red Alert.
During the Cold War, the emergence of weapons that could decimate the earth in the time it takes to scramble an egg caused more than a little nervousness. Schoolchildren were advised to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear attack, although their desks were unlikely to shield them from the incinerating blast. Fallout shelters were built in backyards, and citizens in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly on “red alert,” awaiting what seemed like an inevitable mushroom cloud in the sky. When the two superpowers began stockpiling, Mao Tse-tung dismissed nuclear bombs as “paper tigers,” meant only to scare people. But he quickly began developing his own paper tigers.
The closest the world came to what Peter George’s novel Red Alert describes in terrifying detail was 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, when for 13 days the U.S. and the USSR sweated out a nuclear standoff. Finally President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to terms and withdrew their nuclear weapons from Turkey and Cuba, respectively. Chairman Mao viewed this as a complete failure by Khrushchev, vowing that if it had been up to him, the U.S. would still be on red alert.
The Red and the Black chronicles the decline of 19th-century France’s Bourbon Restoration and the eventual July Revolution that dismantled it. A century later in “Red China,” after a so-called bloodless revolution, Chairman Mao Tse-tung cast Stendhal’s societal colors in a starker light. Under Mao’s stifling regime, those who toed the red line were communist martyrs, peasants, workers, cadres and soldiers. Everyone else—landlords, the rich, communist rebels, criminals, and rightists—was blacklisted and purged.
Nothing symbolizes Mao’s connection to red more than Quotations From Chairman Mao, or, as it is known in the West, The Little Red Book. The once-ubiquitous Quotations, with its solid red cover, is among the most printed books in history, and it contains Mao’s philosophies about the importance of hard work and not giving in to luxuries. But perhaps Mao wasn’t quite the shade of red he preached. After Mao died, his physician, Li Zhisui, released a memoir depicting the ruler as a lazy, chain-smoking wretch with no friends, whose moralizing did not prevent him from enjoying dance parties, swimming pools and, though he was sexually diseased, countless young women. Mao lived the double standard squibbed by Stendhal—straddling the gap between morality and reality.
Mao Tse-tung built his empire with blood. As he rose to power, he led the deadly Long March, ordered mass executions and tortured opponents. Thousands were killed, mutilated and burned. Chairman Mao besieged cities, and if direct force failed, he blockaded and starved them in the name of revolution.
In 1949, when Mao took command, China was in shambles. Nine years later he instituted the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catapult China into the modern world as an industrialist society. He forced peasants to farm with no profit and to build a vast infrastructure with shoddy materials and little knowledge. If they dissented in any way, he destroyed their homes. In the four years of the Great Leap, an estimated 45 million people starved, were crushed under failed constructions or were executed for not adhering to Mao’s guidelines. As China’s citizenry neared the breaking point in 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, obliterating traditional Chinese culture in favor of stricter communist rule. Once again Mao organized mass killings and imprisoned anyone he perceived as a political threat. Mao’s China was awash in revolutionary red, not just as communist symbolism but as a result of unrelenting bloodshed.