The importance of colour to different cultures

Many examples of wool tradecloth prominent in ethnographic collections are red, a colour of great symbolic importance to many cultures.

Other colours, such as dark blue, were also highly valued by native cultures trading with Europeans. Dark blue formed the largest part of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s orders, in bulk and value. While colour is important to very many diverse societies, particular meanings attributed to colour cannot be generalised from one society to another.

Colour symbolism was significant in the cosmology of northeastern Native American Nations at the time of first contact with Europeans. Preferences for cloth colour do not map onto a system exactly and are probably affected by aesthetics; a dark blue ground forms a contrasting background to decorations and bright colours for women’s and men’s clothing. The Anishnaabe people of North America favoured dark blue as the ground fabric for large items of clothing, such as the strap dress exhibited here. Red was often used in smaller quantities and for smaller components of clothing along with other bright colours – white, yellow, light blue and silver. Red may be over-represented in ethnographic collections, particularly outside North America, because collectors preferred the extraordinary over the ordinary and decorative over background; the Anishnaabe favoured red for small items and collectors preferred small items as they could transport and store them more easily; the Anishnaabe saved smaller items while larger wool items were recycled into other things. (Silverstein C. 2000. Clothed Encounters: The Power of Dress in Relations Between Anishnaabe and British Peoples in the Great Lakes Region, 1760-2000. PhD dissertation, Mc Master University.)

Colour was important in Hindu science and religion. For example, the spirit of red cloth, or redness itself, could combine with a person’s moral substance and transform it, such that a “red man” might be a sorcerer. Soldiers wore red turbans in battle, women wore red clothes and reddened their hands and hair during marriage or fertility festivals. Influenced by soldiers of the East India Company’s ‘red coats’, Indian rulers in the eighteenth century adopted scarlet English broadcloth to make their own armies more impressive. The ‘red coats’ were appropriate to the traditional colour-coding of the Indian warrior classes, and the use of red serge spread from Nawab of Awadh’s 60,000 man army to those of his competitors and others.(Bayly CA. 1986. The Origins of Swadeshi (home industry): cloth and Indian Society, 1700-1930. In A Appadurai (ed): The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press.)

Several examples highlight the importance of red goods in the Pacific. In 1865 John Gould Veitch noted during a four-month Royal Navy excursion to Polynesian and Melanesian islands: “The prospect of ‘lighting for the first time upon some fine plant previously unknown to English gardens” was exciting and he prepared eight wardian cases, took hatchets, knives, fish hooks, red cloth, and much else to barter with the natives.”(Shephard S. 2003. Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty. Bloomsbury)

In China, one use of the scarlet cloth was to furnish temples. There had been a short period of trade with the Japanese when: “broadcloth found a tiny niche market as a lining for weapons or armour boxes, or as saddle blankets”. (Farrington A. 2002. Trading Places: the East India Company and Asia 1600-1834. London: British Library,)