Textile Museum Examines Color’s Symbolism Across Different Cultures

Red catches people’s attention. It can mean love or it can be associated with anger. It tells people when to stop on the road, warns of possible danger, and intensifies passion on the walls of a bedroom. Its use spans a paradoxical range of meanings across cultures—from blood and death to romance and fervor.

Red is also the color of choice for many of today’s most successful retailers, fashion designers and interior decorators. At one time, however, red textiles were a luxury that was only within reach of the wealthy. Before artificial dyes were invented, natural pigments were gathered from animals and plants through an intensive process that made cloth and other products costly. But all that changed when synthetic dyes entered the textile scene in the 19th century and the color’s mass popularity grew as a choice for rugs, tapestries, ball gowns and ritualistic attire.

This is the history woven into the 21 pieces selected from the Textile Museum’s 17,000-item collection for “RED,” a display that spans more than 2,000 years to explore what the color has symbolized throughout time and across the globe.

The oldest item in the gallery is an artifact left over from the border of a Peruvian tunic. It presents an antique style from the valley of Nazca, where the color was reserved for important religious textiles. In another fragment that survived from an ancient Egyptian Coptic tapestry, a red leopard leaps in front of a neutral background.

The exhibit’s more contemporary pieces show the progression of bold red from novelty to mass availability. The red in a Japanese kimono from the 1980s is concealed in the lining for hidden allure. The iconic AIDS awareness lapel ribbon on loan from the Whitman-Walker Clinic was among the thousands made in the 1970s. And a 2004 tapestry taken from Thomas Cronenberg’s “Identity Series” is a shimmering chronicle of the artist’s journey from straight to gay, depicted in a deliberate, vibrant red that was selected for its “visual and emotional impact.”

In Chinese traditions, red has been used in wedding decorations and attire as a symbol of good luck and success. Representing this custom in the exhibit is a wedding collar that also happens to nicely complement a 1970s Halston ball gown. The two objects show—better than any wall text could—the complexities of a bold color used in both deeply meaningful and luxuriously decadent ways.

Other items selected for the display include an Ottoman floor covering, an Uzbek hanging, Vietnamese banner, Navajo rug, Tunisian shawls and a 16th-century Iranian textile. Together, they work in concert to explore the role of red in textiles and clothing that were used daily as well as ceremonially around the world.

The February opening of “RED” coincided with the reddest holiday of them all: Valentine’s Day. For those who missed the “Power, Prestige and Romance of Red” Valentine’s party, the museum still has plenty of special occasions left. This month’s events include scavenger hunts, performances, workshops and a film screening.

RED through July 8 Textile Museum 2320 S St., NW For more information, please call (202) 667-0441 or visit

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.