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Throughout the last 1000 years red has become a consistent motif for military clothing and heraldic imagery in England. What are the reasons for this? Are there economic, environmental (eg. dyes used in wool trade), social or political reasons for the primacy of this colour?

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There is a lot of red in the Royal coat of arms ... –  Drux Feb 26 at 18:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Although I can't answer for heraldry, there were a number of factors that influenced the red colour of English, then British military uniforms.

During the 16th to early 20th centuries, primary colours and red especially helped to blur soldiers together, so that the enemy from a distance found it difficult to distinguish numbers and individuals accurately. Remember that back then, long-range weapons were highly inaccurate, so blending in with the crowd afforded you an element of safety.

However, up close and personal during the battle, things were fairly chaotic with lots of smoke, etc., so having your kinsmen stand out from your enemy and being able to quickly recognize friend from foe was also a boon.

But still, why red? That actually came down to a number of factors as well.

During the civil war, red dye was the most abundant and easily available dye to use. Red is also a simpler dying process, requiring only a single stage as opposed to other colours, and is cheaper.

Culturally red evolved to become a national colour for whatever reasons, and so we ended up sticking with the colour.

References:

  • Barnes, Major R. M. (1951) History of the Regiments & Uniforms of the British Army.
  • Barthorp, Michael (1982) British Infantry Uniforms Since 1660.
  • Carman, W.Y. (1968) British Military Uniforms.
  • Young P. (1999) The English Civil War
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I thought red hid an injury (blood). Is that a myth I read somewhere? –  Razie Mah Feb 26 at 16:42
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I believe that's a myth. –  Lloyd Feb 26 at 16:44
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Yes I googled it and it pulls up with several sites discrediting it. So its a myth. –  Razie Mah Feb 26 at 16:45
    
Some references would really improve this answer. –  DJClayworth Feb 26 at 17:34
    
Good answer. Will be great to see some comments on pre-16th Century use in addition to this! –  Alan Kael Ball Feb 27 at 8:44

There have been a number of great answers, but I would add one other reason.

The Patron Saint of England is St George, whose colours are a red cross on a white background (still the flag of England today).

enter image description here

What better colours to wear into battle than those of your patron saint who fought a dragon and won!?

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I'd appreciate an explanation of the downvote - I'm fairly new to History, if this is a bad answer I'd appreciate some guidance. –  Liath Feb 27 at 8:57
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I suspect (as I have voted neither way) that it's because there are no references to support your theory. It sounds like good reasoning to me as well. –  Kobunite Feb 27 at 10:48
    
The lobsterbacks seemed to wear the opposite - white cross on red field. –  Oldcat Feb 28 at 1:25

Red is considered a Royal color (that and blue are the main colors) they can be found in almost every coat-of-arms. Red wasn't adapted until fabrics were used during the crusades (12th century).

Red and blue appeared on the same standards and robes because they compliment each other. When the french decided to use Blue as their main color the British naturally swayed to the red because blue troops fighting blue troops would make the battle field hectic and chaotic.

This is why the American Continental Army chose blue to be their color, the opposite of the british red.

Why Red though?

  1. Red would blend in with the fire of muskets and other guns
  2. Red would blend into the brick forts and structures the british were famed for
  3. Red is an aggressive color, studies have shown that if you played against yourself in a game of soccer the one in red would win.

Color Meaning

Red

Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love.

Red is a very emotionally intense color. It enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure. It has very high visibility, which is why stop signs, stoplights, and fire equipment are usually painted red. In heraldry, red is used to indicate courage. It is a color found in many national flags.

Red brings text and images to the foreground. Use it as an accent color to stimulate people to make quick decisions; it is a perfect color for 'Buy Now' or 'Click Here' buttons on Internet banners and websites. In advertising, red is often used to evoke erotic feelings (red lips, red nails, red-light districts, 'Lady in Red', etc). Red is widely used to indicate danger (high voltage signs, traffic lights). This color is also commonly associated with energy, so you can use it when promoting energy drinks, games, cars, items related to sports and high physical activity.

Light red represents joy, sexuality, passion, sensitivity, and love. Pink signifies romance, love, and friendship. It denotes feminine qualities and passiveness. Dark red is associated with vigor, willpower, rage, anger, leadership, courage, longing, malice, and wrath. Brown suggests stability and denotes masculine qualities. Reddish-brown is associated with harvest and fall.

Link -http://www.color-wheel-pro.com/color-meaning.html

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Could you provide sources, especially for that last sentence? –  Steve Melnikoff Feb 26 at 18:20
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This could be a very good answer but it badly needs sources for the strong claims made. –  Felix Goldberg Feb 26 at 20:14
    
@SteveMelnikoff I'd heard that one before as well. Quick google shows Red shirt colour is associated with long-term team success though not sure personally how credible that is... –  Martin Smith Feb 27 at 0:04
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@jwenting to paraphrase Felix, this could be a very good comment but it badly needs sources for the strong claims made. –  Mr Lister Feb 27 at 8:38
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Yes, good answer. Red, with purple, are considered royal colors from the Roman tradition, right? I'm not sure about the color meanings, though. Colors have different meanings in different cultures and across time. –  Razie Mah Feb 27 at 18:25

In an age of smoky battlefields and inaccurate muskets it is often more important for your own leaders to be able to find the right units than to 'hide' from the enemy. Thus the bright colored uniforms. You needed mass fire to keep cavalry away and beat down the other side's units and you needed to stand to reload. So infantry wasn't behind any cover.

Even in those days, units that did hide in combat - skirmishers and light infantry - did have more concealing uniforms.

After that, you need to just make sure your brightly colored uniforms are colored different than your opponents. Red suited the English so they chose it.

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Muskets and gunfire were invented only after England already had many centuries under those colors. That could be a factor in keeping up with that tradition throughout time, but not a cause for that tradition which precedes firearms. –  Peteris Feb 27 at 0:09
    
Well, if the important factor was "for your own leaders to be able to find the right units" why then uniform were red both front and back, and not only on the back, where the commanders were? Styling uniforms after Baboons, with blending front and a bright red spot on the behind would serve dual purpose of hiding from the enemy in the smoke and declaring your position to the commander. –  Michael Feb 27 at 0:18
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units can be behind the officer, as in reserves, or reinforcements marching towards the battle. –  Oldcat Feb 27 at 0:39
    
@Peteris - there is always dust when marching as well. –  Oldcat Feb 27 at 0:39

Red dye was cheap at the time the decision was made. No seriously they had decided they needed a uniform colour for the army and Red was just cheaper at the time.

see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_coat_(British_army) "The adoption and continuing use of red by most British/English soldiers after the Restoration (1660) was the result of circumstances rather than policy, including the relative cheapness of red dyes"

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_coat_(British_army) "The adoption and continuing use of red by most British/English soldiers after the Restoration (1660) was the result of circumstances rather than policy, including the relative cheapness of red dyes" read it elsewhere as well. People WANT for it to be some reason , some symbolic idea, but no red dyes were cheaper –  pugsville Mar 4 at 6:12
    
great, add it to your answer :) –  Alan Kael Ball Mar 4 at 8:36

The local flag in Normandy is red with 2 yellow lions on it. I can only assume that once William had conquered England, that coat of arms had an extra lion added to it, ie did the lions equal kingdoms? Could the red question stem from this era?

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Is this answer purely speculation? If not, please show some sources to back up this claim. Thanks! :) –  American Luke Mar 5 at 0:09

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