During the nineteenth century, red was considered a vibrant, powerful color, suitable for warm winter cloaks, richly patterned shawls, and dramatic evening dresses. In shades ranging from soft rose to brilliant crimson, it adorned women of every age and every station, providing a vivid pop of color to ensembles that would otherwise be considered plain or even drab. In today’s article, we look at some of the loveliest examples of the color red in Victorian fashion.
*Please note: These sorts of vivid, deep reds were generally achieved with aniline dye. Invented in 1856, aniline dye produced a wider range of color than natural red dyes like cochineal.
In his 1870 book Color in Dress, author George Audsley describes red as “a strong, ostentatious, and warm color.” In its brightest and richest shades, it could be worn in autumn or winter and was thought to be particularly flattering on brunettes and those with darker hair. For “florid brunettes” (i.e. brunettes with rich-toned or olive skin), Audsley recommends scarlets, bright crimsons, and all other shades of brilliant reds.
For pale brunettes, Audsley advises deeper reds, such as clarets, dark russets, and crimsons. The reasoning behind this was that since the pale brunette had very fair skin and very dark hair, it was “injurious” to the complexion to wear a mid-tone shade. Instead, the pale brunette was urged to choose colors at either the very darkest or very lightest end of the red spectrum. Thus, she might wear a rose red or a deep claret, but not a bright scarlet or a vivid cherry.
Certain shades of red were better suited to certain times of day. Rose red, for example, was not an ideal color for evening dress since, according to the 1885 edition of Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, “the beauty of rose color disappears under the gaslight.” Crimson and scarlet, on the other hand, were considered to be more flattering at night. Whether in gaslight or candlelight, they never lost their brilliancy, making them a perfect choice for evening.
Audsley states that the color red was “expressive of anger and the ardent passions.” However, depending on the shade, red could also be stately, dignified, or even girlish. An 1886 edition of The Cosmopolitan reports that red dresses were especially popular that year for “misses and young ladies.” These red dresses were sometimes made with black or trimmed with black silk passementerie.
According to Audsley, red was also symbolic of war, pomp, and power. As such, the color was particularly well suited for those garments designed with a militaristic flair. Red dresses trimmed with military-style buttons or black or gold military braid were considered very fashionable. Red jacket bodices made to resemble Hussar jackets were also quite popular, especially as British troops began returning from Egypt in 1882.
Shades of red were often used in combination with other colors. In dresses of the Victorian era, reds can frequently be seen coupled with black. However, Audsley warns that crimson and black or brown—though technically harmonious—make a rather dull combination.
Red and gold was another popular color combination during the Victorian era. Red dresses were printed or embroidered with gold patterns or made with gold trimmings, including gold lace, beads, buttons, tassels, fringe, or braid.
Pale red fabrics contrasted with deep red fabrics could make for a dramatic evening dress or ball gown. As an example, below is stunning silk evening dress from the 1880s. Note that the designer has left off any tassels, fringe, lace, or beads. The color combination alone is what makes it so striking.
Shades of red can also be seen in Victorian dresses made of patterned fabric such as plaids or prints. In these cases, it is generally only an accent color and far less brilliant than on its own. For fair-skinned blondes, this was considered to be a flattering way to wear red since, according to Audsley, it was generally too powerful for them otherwise, especially when worn close to the face.
Fashion historian C. Willet Cunnington reports that during bleak, Victorian winters “red jerseys, red coats and cloaks, red hose, petticoats, hats, bonnets and muffs, conduce to brighten up the winter somberness.” Red accessories were not, however, limited to the winter. Fashionable ladies wore red throughout the year, including red bonnets, parasols, shawls, stockings, and even red shoes. These red silk boots are just one example of how red was used in Victorian ladies’ footwear.
Evening slippers in shades of red were also very fashionable when paired with the right evening dress or ball gown. The below evening slippers are made of red silk with decorative glass beading.
Red ribbons, red plumes, red beads, and red silk flowers decorated Victorian ladies’ bonnets throughout the year. The dazzling 1880s red bonnet below is made of red silk ribbons, beads, and feathers.
Red ribbons were also frequently used to trim plain, straw bonnets. As an example, the poke bonnet below is trimmed rather sparingly in red velvet ribbon.
In author William Black’s 1894 novel Highland Cousins, one of the characters declares that “any young lady that carries a scarlet parasol does nothing more nor less than confer a favor on every one coming within sight of her.” The idea that a red parasol was a beautiful and eye-catching accessory was nothing new. Red parasols were fashionable for much of the 19th century. Generally made of silk, they came in a range of shades, from pale rose to deepest claret.
Shades of red were often found in the rich, cashmere shawls which were so popular during the Regency and Victorian eras. These reds were generally combined with golds and other rich colors. Red was also a favorite color in less expensive wool or knitted shawls. Below is a red wool wedding shawl from 1866.
Shades of red were also used in women’s undergarments, with fashionable ladies as apt to don a cherry-colored corset or scarlet stockings as their less ladylike counterparts in the lower strata of society. In many respects, red underthings were still quite daring. As an example, below is a red cotton corset from the 1880s.
Red stockings were especially fashionable during the Victorian era. Sometimes they were plain red. Other times they were embellished with decorative patterns or embroidery. The red, silk knit stockings below feature a design of playing cards.
A red fan was a striking complement to a light colored or neutral-toned evening dress or ball gown. Red fans came in many different varieties. There were painted fans, feather fans, and fans decorated with sequins and spangles. Below is a red, silk crepe fan stamped with gold rosettes.
Red fans with red gowns could also be quite striking. The 1886 red silk reception dress below is shown with a red fan. As you can see, it makes a very dramatic statement and would probably not have been recommended for young ladies in their first season.
For the fashionable Victorian lady, there were many options in red jewels, with rubies and garnets being by far the most popular. Depending on a lady’s budget, one might find her wearing a ruby or garnet brooch, necklace, bracelet, earrings, rings, or even hairpins. Below is an interesting cabochon garnet ring set in gold. It is designed to resemble the turret of a castle.
Rubies were much more expensive than garnets. In fact, according to an 1881 edition of The American Magazine, at that particular time in history rubies had surpassed diamonds in value. Most valuable of all were the pigeon’s blood rubies found in India. Below is a magnificent ruby and rose-cut diamond ring from 1850.
A Few Final Words…
There is no one color that fully represents the Victorian era. However, I hope the above has given you some idea of how red was used in Victorian women’s fashion. For a refresher on the shades of Victorian fashion that we have already covered, the previous articles in my series are available here:
In future, I’ll be profiling other popular shades of the era. Until then, I leave you with the following wise words on color from the 1862 edition of Littell’s Living Age:
“Dress should be to the person what the frame is to the picture, subordinate — the setting that enhances the beauty of the gem, but does not overwhelm it.”