Faith and Monochrome: Red

Investigating Colour in Religious Dress

TO CONCLUDE THE SERIES investigating the role of colour to various religious cultures, we look at red as a potent communicator of various spiritual ideals. As the other instalments have illustrated, white and black possess a relatively uniform message across religious faiths. In the case of red, however, there is not one dominant meaning attached to the colour, as such, we explore three religions’ individual and varied connections to the colour red.

Kabbalah:

Within the Kabbalist Jewish tradition, it is customary for adherents to wear a red crimson string, popularly believed to ward off misfortune brought on by the evil eye. The string is knotted seven times around the left wrist and then sanctified with blessings. The tradition originates from a biblical story, which details the death of Rachel, wife of Jacob and Jewish Matriarch. Upon her death, Jacob wound a red string around her tomb seven times. The string was then cut into pieces and worn on the left wrist – considered by Jewish mysticism to be the spiritual receiving side. Contemporary Kabbalist rabbis believe that by continuing this tradition, we can establish a connection to the tomb of Rachel, and by extension, receive vital protective energies.

The Hebrew word for red, ‘adom’, is related to similar words such as adama (earth), dam (blood), adam (man) and Adam HaElyon (supernatural man). As such, the colour red functions as a symbol of the eternal connection between man, God, and the earth.

In the late 1990s, the red Kabbalist string became a popular fashion trend amongst celebrities in the United States. Phillip Berg’s controversial Kabbalist Centre in Los Angeles became infamous for its ability to recruit a long list of high profile celebrities and millionaires. Photographed on a multiplicity of celebrities’ wrists, the red string quickly became the most visible symbol of contemporary Kabbalah, and as a result, an unexpectedly productive marketing tool for a religious movement deeply entangled with business.1

Madonna, a popular Kabbalist celebrity.
Britney Spears wearing a red Kabbalah bracelet.
Britney Spears wearing a red Kabbalah bracelet.
Michael Jackson wearing a red Kabbalah bracelet.
Michael Jackson wearing a red Kabbalah bracelet.
Paris Hilton at a fashion event.
Paris Hilton at a fashion event.

Hinduism:

Many adherents to Hinduism wear a coloured marking on their forehead in order to identify their third eye, or the centre of their nervous system. It is believed that in this area, individuals can see spiritual truths. The markings are usually red, black or white dots.

Red dots are called bindi or pottu. They are made out of a paste called kumkum, made from turmeric powder and lime juice. Some historians believe that the red markings originate from the ancient practice of animal sacrifices. Today, the colour red functions as a marking of women’s marriage status. Young, unmarried women wear a black bindi, while married women wear a bright red bindi.

During the late twentieth century, the bindi became a fashion accessory for Indian women. Instead of using the kumkum powder, women could now buy red felt bindis that stuck on the forehead. Bindis also began to be manufactured in other decorative shapes and colours, many of which included gemstones for an enhanced glamorous look.2

Young married women applying bindis, from Britannica Image Quest.
Young married women applying bindis, from Britannica Image Quest.
Piles of red and yellow kumkum powder, used to make a paste for the bindis in Rajasthan, India.
Piles of red and yellow kumkum powder, used to make a paste for the bindis in Rajasthan, India.
Bindis as Western fashion accessories: Selena Gomez performing with stick-on bindi.
Bindis as Western fashion accessories: Selena Gomez performing with stick-on bindi.

Christianity:

Although Christmas as celebrated in Christian countries, is universally associated with red and green, certain historians have recently uncovered the historical roots of this connection. Cambridge research scientist Dr Spike Bucklow argues that the colours can be traced back multiple centuries, to a time when they held a symbolic meaning. After examining medieval panel paintings, Bucklow uncovered that red and green were typically used to establish a boundary between different spaces of the church: the nave, where the congregation sat, painted in green, and the priests’ altar, painted in red.3

Other religious opinions suggest that red is used as a symbol of the blood of Jesus, a representation of apples on the paradise tree from the Adam and Eve story or a reference to bishops’ red robes.4

Today, the red-green colour duo has been co-opted by a variety of corporations, who each December, exploit one of the most universally recognised colour combinations in pursuit of profit.

Hordes of Santas, dressed in mass-produced, store bought costumes.
Hordes of Santas, dressed in mass-produced, store bought costumes.
A Santa portrait from a shopping centre, one of the central examples of the deep entanglement between Christmas and consumption.
A Santa portrait from a shopping centre, one of the central examples of the deep entanglement between Christmas and consumption.
A sexy Christmas costume, highlighting that Christmas has transformed into an eroticised commodity.
A sexy Christmas costume, highlighting that Christmas has transformed into an eroticised commodity.

Dalia Vann is a writer and stylist. She has an MA in History and Culture of Fashion.


  1. S.J. Bronner. Jewish Cultural Studies: Jewishness, Expression, Identity and Representation, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford, 2008 

  2. Gunda, K and Baruah, S. What Is That?, Ann Arbor, MI, Proctor Publications, 1999 

  3. University of Cambridge. Who Colour-Coded Christmas?, www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/who-colour-coded-christmas2011 

  4. T. Carson. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Gale Publishing, Michigan, 2002