Shades of Victorian Fashion: Crimson, Claret, Scarlet, and Red

Individual Images via Met Museum and MFA Boston.
Individual Images via Met Museum and MFA Boston.

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. 

GOWNS

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.

1865-1868 Red Silk Visiting Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.

1876 Red Silk Dress. (Image via Philadelphia Museum of Art)
1876 Red Silk Dress.
(Image via Philadelphia Museum of Art)

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.

1875 Red Silk Ball Gown.(Image via Met Museum)
1875 Red Silk Ball Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

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.

1887 Claret-Colored Wool Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.

1899 Red wool Jacket with Military Braid.
(Met Museum)

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.

Late 1870s Red Silk Ball Gown.(Met Museum)
Late 1870s Red Silk Ball Gown.
(Met Museum)

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.

1879 Red Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.

1884-1886 Red Silk Evening Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.

1880 Plaid Cotton Madras Dress.( Museum at FIT)
1880 Red and Blue Plaid Cotton Dress.
( Museum at FIT)
1875 White and Red Cotton Dress.
(LACMA)

Shoes

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.

Red Ribbed Silk Boot with Lace Trim.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

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.

1875-1885 Red Silk Beaded Evening Slippers.(Met Museum)
1875-1885 Red Silk Beaded Evening Slippers.
(Met Museum)

Bonnets

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.

1883 French Bonnet with Red Beads, Feathers, and Ribbon.
(Met Museum)

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.

1879-1884 Poke Bonnet with Red Velvet Ribbon.
(Met Museum)

Parasols

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.

1886 Red Silk Parasol.
(Met Museum)

Shawls

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.

1866 Red Wool Wedding Shaw;.
(Met Museum)

Undergarments

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.

1880s Red Cotton Corset.
(Met Museum)

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.

1900 Red Silk Knit Stockings.
(Museum at FIT)

Fans

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.

Mid-19th Century Red Crepe Fan.
(MFA Boston)

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.

1886 Red Silk Reception Dress.
(Cincinnati Art Museum)

Jewelry

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.

1899-1903 Cabochon Garnet Ring.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

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.

1850 Ruby Set in Gold with Rose-Cut Diamonds.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

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:

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Pretty in 19th Century Pink

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Orange, Pumpkin, and Peach

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Butter, Lemon, Gold, and Yellow

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Lilacs, Lavenders, Plums, and Purples

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Cerulean, Mazarine, Navy, and Blue

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.”

Nude with Red Stockings by Guiseppe De Nittis, 1879.
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Audsley, George Ashdown.  Color in Dress: A Manual for Ladies.  Philadelphia: George Maclean, 1870.

Black, William.  Highland Cousins.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894.

The Cosmopolitan, Vol. I.  Rochester: Schlicht & Field, 1886.

Cunnington, C. Willett.  English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.  London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1939.

Gale, Ethel.  Hints on Dress: Or, What to Wear, when to Wear It, and how to Buy it.  New York: J. P. Putnam & Sons, 1872.

Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms.  Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1885.

“How to Choose Colors in Dress.”  Peterson’s Magazine, Volumes 27-28.  Philadelphia: C. J. Peterson, 1855.

“A Lady’s Dress.”  Littell’s Living Age.  Vol. 75.  Boston: Littell, Son, and Company, 1862.

Paxton, Joseph Rupert.  Jewelry and the Precious Stones.  Philadelphia: John Penington & Son, 1856.

Sherwood, M. E. W.  “Jewels, Jewelry, and Goldsmith’s Work.”  The American Magazine, Vol. 12.  New York: Frank Leslie’s Publishing House, 1881.


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23 Comments on "Shades of Victorian Fashion: Crimson, Claret, Scarlet, and Red"

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Sarah Waldock
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Such a nice cheerful colour, red!

Mimi Matthews
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I agree :)

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Guest

Not only is red a beautiful color as a writer there is so much I can do with it when the heroine is wearing a red ball gown.

Mimi Matthews
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It’s surprisingly versatile for such a strong color!

Elizabeth Melrose
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Reblogged this on Site Title and commented:
SHADES OF VICTORIAN FASHION: CRIMSON, CLARET, SCARLET, AND RED

Mimi Matthews
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Thanks for the reblog, Elizabeth :)

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Alexandria Szeman (@Alexandria_SZ)
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Gotta have me some of them red shoes. Divine.
And that corset… very sexy.
And those gowns. Sometimes, I regret not living in an era when gowns were de rigeur, though I would have balked at the corsets, I suppose.
Another great post, Mimi.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you liked it Alexandria :) I feel the same way about these gowns. Would love to still wear them, but not sure how comfortable it would be to spend a whole day in the full rig.

paper doll
Guest

Mimi that may be why they kept changing outfits during the course of the day…to get out of them! lol

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Good point :)

Vickie
Guest

Red – beautifully done. Your narrative and images are striking. Love the painting!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you enjoyed it :) I love that painting, too. The lady is very daring with only those red stockings!

debbierodgers @Exurbanis
Guest

Yup, could I have those red shoes shipped to me, please.

Another magnificent post, Mimi!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks, Debbie :) I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And I feel the same about those red boots!

Candy Korman
Guest

With a January birthday, my jewelry box is full of garnets. I appreciate the Victorian fondness for he dark, red stones!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

There are some gorgeous examples of Victorian jewelry set with garnets out there. It was a very popular stone!

paper doll
Guest

Another great post! No one did red like the Victorians. Whenever Charlotte Brontë condemned the RC Church , she always alluded to its use of color crimson as some how sinful. Yet when Charlotte finally revoked the no curtains rule at the Parsonage and ordered curtains for her sitting room, they were crimson. However they were ill dyed and I can just see her joking it was her just punishment for such wantonness. lol

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you enjoyed it :) I hadn’t heard that about Charlotte Brontë! Too funny.

Angelyn
Guest

Beautiful. Reminds me of Irene Forsyte waltzing under Soames’ jealous eye in 2002 ITV series, the Forsyte Saga.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Oh yes! She had a lovely red dress, didn’t she?

authorangelabell
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Gorgeous! My favorite it the 1886 Red Silk Reception Dress.

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