Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . . I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget. Not 100% sure on that one.”
You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors like scarlet or purple to the nobility, just in case some nouveau riche lout was tempted to dress above his station. Renaissance Europeans would have considered today’s dress-for-success colors—black, beige, grey, and other subdued shades—fit only for paupers.
Red and its close cousin purple were the most coveted of colors because they were the most difficult to make and the most expensive. Down the centuries, reds and reddish purples became the acknowledged color of royalty throughout the world. Chinese and Persian rulers preferred red. The togas of Roman senators bore a reddish-purple band. The Catholic Church took red as a symbol of its authority, using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem and dressing its cardinals in scarlet robes. The British were not alone in dressing their military officers in red uniforms. Its rarity and its link to status made good red dye almost priceless.
Max Hamrick, Colonial Williamsburg’s master weaver and dyer, says that both cochineal and madder were used to put the red in Redcoats. The British government supplied their soldiers with uniforms that were dyed with madder because it was cheaper. Officers, who supplied their own uniforms, preferred the brighter red of cochineal for their jackets. Red was the symbol of power and prestige, not some cover up for blood.
My article on cochineal and the color red appears in the current issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine. I found the topic fascinating–hope you will too.