Red is one of the most striking colors and one of the colors found most in nature. It is especially ingrained in humans with it being the third color that babies recognize. Throughout history, it has also been considered the most alluring, with it showing up as a symbol of sensuality in ancient times and today on lips for the same reason. And of all of the colors I’ve covered in this series so far, from what I can tell it was the one most popular in the Victorian era. 

While a lot of sources suggest that red, especially in the Victorian era, was a sign of promiscuity or a color that women were encouraged to avoid for that reason, my research suggests otherwise.

But first, a bit of history…

Red through fashion history

I was able to find several references to the color red in Victorian fashion guides, but by the mid-1800s it appears to have been fairly common as a clothing/accessory for some time. When looking for portraits featuring women in red dresses, for instance, I found just as many portraits from decades prior.

As for my research, a lot of what I found online focused on red as used in fashion centuries before. I pulled a few fun facts that I thought may interest our curious readers. 

A color to signify religious rank 

Cardinals are members of the top leadership council in the Catholic church and are well-known for wearing red. This has been a tradition since the 1400s and is meant to both make them stand out from lay members and also to signify their willingness to die for their faith. Look and Learn says of the tradition: 

“Even when a cardinal is engaged in his ordinary daily business, his garments are edged with the red which has come to be associated with his dignity. A brilliant red glows from the pipings and cloth-covered buttons on the everyday black cassocks, and from waist sashes, skull-caps and stockings. On ceremonial occasions, the cardinals’ cassocks are entirely in red, and they wear red silken cloaks with voluminous trains which they drape over the arm like the Romans did their togas.”

Political authority

Red has been associated with political authority for centuries. As we explored in Purple, please. Colors in the Victorian era, purple was the color most associated with the throne, with sumptuary laws even preventing non-royals from wearing it. But the royals have always loved red as well, given its association with wealth. It is seen on the trim of the opulent coronation robes through time. 

Charles II of England in Coronation robes, John Michael Wright

And worn in excess by kings and queens. 

If you think that red was seen as scandalous in Victoria’s time, consider that the Queen herself was painted wearing it from head to toe. 

Queen Victoria 1856

And those trying to claim as much power as possible. 

Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, 1806

Red heels: the ultimate mark of French distinction 

And last but not least when it comes to pre-Victorian wearing of red, the les talons rouges. 

This is yet another trend from the past that I think we should bring back. 

During the 17th century heels were a standard for the well-bred gentleman. Louis XIV came to the throne as a child during the height of this craze and developed a liking for the look that he would hold for the rest of his life. 

Some say that it was partially because of his insecurity over his height, though a lot of people debate the theory. Whatever the case, even when optional, Louis wore them in court without fail. A glutton for opulence and simply showing off, he eventually got it in his head to have his heels made red. How fabulous! 

Versailles, 1684

And now onto the Victorian era! 

My go-to manual as to 19th-century color in fashion, Color in Dress (1870) says the following about red:

“Red is a strong, ostentatious, and warm color; and, being so beyond every other, it is, therefore, the fit symbol of war, pomp, and power.”

As to how to use the color red, there were a few opinions, though from what I can tell, when it came to red, it was more about “better is more.” 

“Red must not be used with black, as it gives it a rusty tinge.” –Color in Dress
While this may be the case, this dress is certainly a head-turner:

1860. Image source: MetMuseum

“Blue and red are colors in all respects of an opposite character, and can never be placed in contact without the presence of other colors to unite them. But red and green in due proportion may be contiguous and yet harmonize.” The Art of Dressing Well. A Complete Guide to Economy, Style and Propriety, 1870

Well, this blue and red seem to agree with each other!

1855. Image source: MetMuseum

And to this statement, I beg to differ:

“Red is a color seldom used for dress, but it is the parent of numerous varieties, and may serve as a subsidiary color seldom as effective as scarlet in ribbons or trimmings. The complementary of red, a pale green, looks well with it, in small quantities, but a pale sea-green celadon, a pearl or silver-grey, looks better.”

I had no problem finding red dresses to use as eye candy for this post, from the beginning of the 1800s and beyond. 

1837. Image source: MetMuseum
1884. Image source: MetMuseum
1885. Image source: V&A Museum
1887. Image source: MetMuseum

Before Dorothy: ruby red slippers

As they are today, red shoes were considered to be a great accent piece in the Victorian era. I think many of us wouldn’t mind having replicas of these in our own collections!

1892. Image source: Met Museum
Image source: V&A Museum
1860s. Image source: V&A Museum

So, was red a sign of scandal?

If you notice, there is no word about red being a color to avoid. I searched multiple books, catalogs, and fashion manuals and found no mention that it should be avoided by the proper lady. As we can see from the plethora of contemporary images I found, it was a color to be sought after by such. 


And now, a word about skin tone:

When it comes to avoiding red, the only thing I found was how it applied to skin tone…

“Dark Red is favorable to complexions which have too much natural red, because, besides its tendency to neutralize the color of the skin, it reduces it by contract.” [sic] – Color in Dress

Do you think her red dress helps or hurts her complexion?

And this hilarious bit of advice from The Art of Dressing Well

“A florid complexion is rendered more florid by green. To take an extreme illustration, if a lady were so unfortunate as to be the possessor of a red nose, her keenest rival could not desire for her any worse fate that on some momentous occasion she should wear a green dress. On the other hand, an excess of red may be counteracted by a judicious arrangement of crimson in the dress, or near the face. But this must be used cautiously or the effect may be ludicrously opposite to that intended. Red will not always cure, but sometimes seems to deepen the same hue in the face, a result, however, it will be sound, if the case be analyzed, of the presence of other elements beside the red in the complexion.” 

Timeless: red in winter

“Of all colors, red and its modified hues are most suitable for winter costume. The warm, pleasing effect of a scarlet cloak on a cold winter day is well known. ” –Color in Dress

Image source: V&A Museum
This is also another great example of red and blue being placed next to each other.
Image source: MetMuseum

And for an extra fun note to end on, I also discovered that Victorian ladies loved to wear red lingerie. 

1860. Image source: FIT Museum
Image source: FIT Museum
Image source: FIT Museum

More about Victorian fashion do’s and don’ts:

Green with Envy: colors in the Victorian Era

Victorian traveling dress: guidelines for a proper lady

Tickled pink: colors in the Victorian era

Bloomers: the national controversy of the 1890s

Victorian opera attire: a feast for the eyes