Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Power of a Red Dress ...

by Anne O'Brien

Red, the colour of festivity and enjoyment, the colour of youth and beauty.  Of seduction.  The colour of sin ...

Red is not a colour I ever wear, but I can see its attraction, and it was highly popular with women in the Middle Ages.

Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales tells of the Wife of Bath, an energetic and dominant woman said to be based on Alice Perrers, although she had five husbands, unlike Alice.

The Wife tells the tale in her Prologue of her life with her fifth husband.  And most notably the impact of her Red Dress.

Here she goes:

My fifth and last - God keep his soul in health!
The one I took for love and not for wealth,
Had been at Oxford not so long before
but had left school and gone to lodge next door.
Yes, it was to my godmother's he'd gone,
God bless her soul!  Her name was Alison.
She knew my heart and more of what I thought
Than did the parish priest, and so she ought!

Does this suggest that her fifth husband was a much younger man, recently out of his training?  Perhaps it does.  This is what happened:

And so one time it happened that in Lent,
As I so often did, I rose and went
To see her (Alison), ever wanting to be gay
and go a-strolling, March, April and May,
From house to house for chat and village malice.
Jenkin the clerk (from Oxford) and dame Alis
And I myself into the fields we went.
My husband was in London all that Lent;
All the more fun for me ...

So our Wife of Bath, it would seen, was still wed to husband number four while dallying with number five.  But where did the Red Dress figure?

And so I made a round of visitations,
Went to processions, festivals, orations,
Preachments and pilgrimages, watched the carriages 
They used for plays and pageants, went to marriages,
And always wore my gayest scarlet dress.

Which sounds innocent enough, until our lively lady adds this cautionary note about her favourite item of clothing:

These worms, these moths, these mites, I must confess
Got little chance to eat it, by the way,
Why not?  Because I wore it every day.

Ah, but did scarlet denote our colour red?  The name scarlet derives from the Latin scarlata for 'fine cloth' and that again from the Persian saqirlat.  Scarlet cloth was produced in red, white, green, blue and brown colours among others, although the most common colour was carmine red.

I would wager that our Wife of Bath had a carmine red dress rather than one of green or brown for her lengthy festivities.

And then as an after-thought to her marital situation:

When my fourth husband lay upon his bier,
I wept enough and made but sorry cheer,
As wives must always, for it's custom's grace,
And with my kerchief covered up my face,
But since I was provided with a mate (Jenkin)
I really wept but little, I may state.

And our Wife married the fortunate Jenkin.  I expect she wore her red frock for the occasion.  But it was not a happy marriage, with some violence between the pair, until she took her new husband in hand so that Jenkin finally says to her:

My own true wedded wife,
Do as you please the term of al your life.

A lady after my own heart.  Here is the Wife of Bath, with her hat as big as a buckler and her gap-toothed smile - denoting passion of course - and wearing red, on her way to Canterbury.

The illustrations here, showing the popularity of red frocks, are mostly taken from the Romance of the Rose.

So beware ladies if you decide to wear red.  Who knows what might be the end result.  Or perhaps this tale might just encourage you to buy that scarlet dress ...

Alice Perrers features in my present novel The King's Concubine.  My new novel, The Forbidden Queen, released in March 2013 in the UK, tells of a much gentler heroine, Katherine de VAlois.
To keep up to date with publication, events and signings do visit my Website and Facebook Page:


  1. And there is Marie Stuart's incredible death scene, when her ladies removed her kirtle and the crowd saw that she was wearing crimson underneath,the color of martyrdom. However, in my life altering exploration of her life and times, I find it poignant that on the day she parted from Bothwell at Carberry Hill, she was wearing red petticoats borrowed from a merchant's wife. I sometimes wonder if she perhaps she chose the red for Hepburn. Whatever, the choice and her remarkable dignity on the scaffold certainly secured her claim to martyrdom.

  2. An absolutely delightful post. Beware the woman in red? Thanks so much!

  3. What an interesting and very funny post.

  4. Red is my favorite color and I love to wear it! Often the heroines in my stories wear crimson.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. It has been suggested I think that Chaucer did not intend for the Wife of Bath to be a positive or admirable character, as much as modern feminists like her.

  7. The red dress....much more evocative than a black dress and certainly a statement, but I had no idea of its power in history...I can think of two recent songs (relatively speaking) the rock and roll 'Put on your red dress baby..' and 'Lady in Red.'Thanks for the post. Most enjoyed!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Chaucer may not have wished The Wife of Bath to be a positive or an admirable image - and I am sure that he did not approve of Alice Perrers with whom he was contemporary - and yet he is not judgemental. He is a writer who shows wit and humour and remarkable humanity in his portrayal of character. He allows us, through his poetry, to see both faults and strengths of his Canterbury Pilgrims. They are not black or white characters, but skilfully drawn with all the shades in between. I think that is why Chaucer remains such a powerful voice even today in the 21st century. We recognise the good and bad, and enjoy them for it. (And I am sure the scarlet dress appealed to his sense of fun.)

  10. I've had some raised eyebrows when I described someone as "wearing her green scarlet gown"! That was a fun post, Anne.

  11. The Red Lady of Brittany composed the Lay of the Beach for William the Conqueror's sojourn at Barfleur around 1078.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.