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How Elizabeth I made red hair fashionable – in 1558

There’s a painting in the National Portrait Gallery that has long been a source of fashion inspiration for me; it dates from about 1575, and is a peerless image of redheaded chic. Elizabeth I wears a gown of white and gold satin with dashing scarlet frogging across the breast, like a hussar, and she holds a particularly wonderful feather fan – whites and sulphurous yellows, dark iridescent greens, oranges and russet reds. That ghostly face is turned three-quarters of the way toward us; her expression reserved; her lips compressed. The line of that nose – “rising somewhat in the midst”, as Sir John Hayward described it – is clearly shown. My nose does the same. My hair is also red. Elizabeth I has been my pin-up girl since I was tiny. But it was only when I began researching my book Red: A Natural History of the Redhead that I came to appreciate how revolutionary Elizabeth’s image-making truly was.

Elizabeth’s red hair was no accident. For most of her life, Elizabeth wore wigs, so she might have chosen hair of any colour she liked, but she chose red; she was so committed to the shade that she is even supposed to have dyed the tails of her horses to match. (Who says redheads don’t have a sense of humour?)

The kiss of Judas. Photograph: Alamy

Nor was she following the crowd – far from it. The astonishing thing is that Elizabeth chose a hair colour that had typified the barbarian for centuries, since the time of the ancient Greeks and their encounters with the tribes living around the Black Sea. Its predisposition, as a recessive gene, of cropping up in the endogamous Orthodox Jewish community led to it becoming the hair colour chosen in much European art for the arch-traitor, Judas, too. No surprise, therefore, that it was also used to stigmatise Tudor England’s own barbarian and potentially traitorous “other” – the Irish and the Scots. So powerful a piece of conditioning was this that in Elizabethan literature you find red hair cited as positive proof that the clans of Ireland and Scotland (along with any other untrustworthy Johnny Foreigner you might care to include), were directly descended from the “barbarous Scythians”, a tribe living around the Black Sea 3,000 years ago, mentioned in King Lear.

It seems strange for a monarch to link herself visually with the very subjects who had most to gain should she lose her throne. But there were personal reasons behind Elizabeth’s choice. Displaying the red hair inherited from her father gave the lie to all those rumours of illegitimacy that had plagued her girlhood. There were public and political reasons too.

Red hair has always been other. It stands apart. The white skin that so often goes with it also spoke in Elizabeth’s image-making of her separateness, her status as the Virgin Queen. Red and white were also the colours of St George, England’s patron saint. Those courtiers who dyed their hair or their beards red, to follow Elizabeth’s lead, were not merely declaring their loyalty to the queen; they and she were also, I believe, making a statement of standing apart, in Protestant England, from dark-haired and less pale-skinned Catholic Europe. Red and white were the Elizabethan brand, if you like, and that brand has been one of the most successful in history, as recognisable now as it would have been in Elizabeth’s own day.

This taking of a stereotype and turning it on its head, this classic piece of reverse discrimination, strikes me as startlingly modern, and mirrors the way many redheads are dispatching prejudice today. Gloriana was a superbly clever propagandist without question, but perhaps you have to be a redhead to appreciate what a perfect piece of sleight-of-hand her image-making truly was.

Jacky Collis Harvey’s book Red: A Natural History of the Redhead is published by Allen Unwin at £16.99 and is available for £13.59 from the Guardian Bookshop.

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