“Once upon a time, deep in the heart of the country,” begins Charles Perrault, “there lived a pretty little girl whose mother adored her, and her grandmother adored her even more. This good woman made her a red hood like the ones that fine ladies wear when they go riding. The hood suited the child so much that soon everybody was calling her Little Red Riding Hood” (33). Since its inception in Perrault’s “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” (1697) and its rapid proliferation by the likes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm with their adaptation “Rotkäppchen” (1812/15) or James N Barker’s “Little Red Riding Hood” (1827), the iconographic legacy of the eponymous red riding hood has seen a vast and diverse global history of canonisation and circulation. But why did Perrault choose the riding hood? And why did he choose to make it red? The garment and colour choice have and continue to be topics of much deliberation, with academics and adaptors alike offering interpretations of nascent puberty, female objectification, or taboo sensuality. While much of this dialogue situates the red riding hood as a signifier of provocative sexuality in some fashion, a closer reading of Perrault’s text and his specification that the red hood is like “the ones that fine ladieswear” (emphasis mine) suggests a provocation of another kind—that of transgressive social mobility.
Charles Perrault is often credited with helping to create and commercialise the form we now recognise as the literary tale, adapting popular folklore and oral tales and translating them into a literary format. Perrault, however, was also writing for a particular audience and framed the literary tale within distinctly pedagogical and moralistic terms. As a member of the haute bourgeoisie, or the French upper middle-class, Perrault participated in what Jack Zipes calls the “unique capacity to adopt and use the best elements of other classes” (28) characteristic of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century French aristocracy. The adoption of these elements, informed as they were by sophisticated upper-class taste, sought to provide “behavioural patterns and models for children which were intended to reinforce the prestige and superiority of bourgeois-aristocratic values and styles” (30). Consequently, the adaptation process for this upper-class audience of both adults and children necessitated the careful exclusion or translation of any of the more problematic or offensive aspects of the source tales (Hallet and Karasek 28). For “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” this meant eliding the vulgarities of one source of the tale, the gruesome “Story of Grandmother”, in favour of the introduction of coded moral warnings. Of course, Perrault interrupts this coding at work by the addition of a much more direct moral instruction at the end of the tale, which states that “children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant red ridings hoods and all” (35).
What is reinforced in this moral, however, is the fact that the “elegant” riding hood Little Red wears is like the “the ones that fine ladies wear”. While Perrault may be referring to the fact that even the fine trappings of “pretty, nicely brought-up ladies” cannot protect them from being consumed by indiscriminatory predators, what we should keep in mind is that Little Red is not identified as a “fine lady” in the tale. She is described as living “deep in the heart of the country” (33), with her family spread between villages. There is also the fact that the riding hood, or chaperon, is fashioned after those worn by sixteenth- and seventeenth aristocratic and middle-class women (Zipes 75-6), with Little Red not included in that class category but as instead emulating that class category. As such, Little Red appears to be a member of the lower or rural peasant classes, whose social mobility, given her socioeconomic status, is limited to her reproduction of the fashion of those “fine ladies.” Contained within this emulation, however, is a disruption or blurring of class distinctions, in which the rural peasant assumes the marker of the more prosperous middle and upper classes in an overt manner. Little Red projects herself as something she is fundamentally and socioeconomically not: a “fine lady”. In doing so, there is the threat that within the immensely stratified environment of seventeenth-century France—of which was still operating within the Ancien Régime, a system which saw to the political and social division of pre-Revolution French society—markers of aristocracy or wealth and the sociocultural worth attached to those markers can be destabilised and reduced to their absolute artificiality. To examine this threat of transgressive social mobility further, we must turn to the red of the riding hood.
Zipes interprets the introduction of the red riding hood as an indirect reference to Little Red’s “‘spoiled nature’”, arguing that both the riding hood and the moral “obviously intended to warn little girls that this spoiled child could be ‘spoiled’ in another way by a wolf/man who sought to ravish her” (26). Zipes’s argument, however, assumes that in Perrault’s attempt to establish rigorous standards and the regulation of behaviour and beliefs in aristocratic children, the red riding hood recalls the seventeenth-century association of the colour with “sin, sensuality, and the devil” (26). Echoing Zipes while simultaneously emphasising the “wolf” as a tempter, Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek specifically frame red as “a colour symbolic of sexuality” (28). They position the red riding hood as an emblem of seventeenth-century female sexual provocation and the attraction of sexual predators as a result. Red Riding Hood is thereby punished for her transgressions and those “pretty, nicely brought-up ladies” reading the tale are warned against provoking the “flattering attentions” of those “smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves [that] are the most dangerous beasts of all” (Perrault 35). A troubling notion, certainly, especially for the contemporary reader.
Yet red was also popularised by the French royalty and aristocracy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in part due to the extreme expense of producing, importing, and purchasing strongly pigmented dyes from materials that were often sourced outside of France. The most brilliant and intense red dye, known as carmine, was sourced from dried cochineals, parasitic insects that fed on nopal cactus plants in North and Central America and which were first exported to Europe beginning in 1525-30 by the government of New Spain (Pastoureau 131). So great was the demand for carmine dye that “people made their living trading dye… It was as good as gold” (Stamberg), and by the middle of the seventeenth century it was estimated that 350 tons of cochineals were exported to Europe per year (Pastoureau 131). The cost of the dye, coupled with the fact that only the wealthy could afford to incorporate it into their wardrobe, meant that a display of the colour “constituted a disparity, a signal, or an accent, and in doing so became all the more noticeable” (Pastoureau 134). For France, French historian Joan DeJean states, red was “always a colour associated with palaces, with Versailles” (Stamberg), with DeJean pointing out the courtly fashion of having red-heeled footwear in the fashion of Louis XIV’s talons rouges (red heels). Within this visual convention of red as “a disparity, a signal, or an accent”, Little Red and her red riding hood stands out as a figure to whom the reader should pay attention for her significance.
Understood in this context, had the wearer of the red riding hood been of aristocratic or noble stock, Perrault’s choice to introduce a garment worn by aristocratic women and in a colour so closely associated with the French aristocracy and royalty would not necessarily have been quite as provocative. Little Red, however, is most probably a rural peasant who instead appropriates the markers of aristocracy and nobility in a show of performative social mobility, stepping outside of the demarcation of her class by imitating a class to which she does not socioeconomically or socioculturally belong to. In doing so, Little Red renders those identity markers of the middle and upper classes as surface trappings rather than embodied signifiers of any “true” or authoritative sociocultural and economic value. The wolf, then, not only functions as a form of punishment for this provocative act of class defiance, but it also acts as a form of containment of what is an otherwise significant threat to the stability of the French social class system. Perrault’s “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” thus emerges as not as a warning against transgressive sexuality, but as a warning against transgressive or subversive social mobility enacted by the lower or rural peasant classes.
Hallet, Martin, and Barbara Karasek. “Little Red Riding Hood.” Folk and Fairy Tales, edited by Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek, Broadview Press, 2009, pp. 27-31.
Pastoureau, Michel. Red: The History of a Colour. Translated by Jody Gladding, Princeton University Press, 2017.
Perrault, Charles. “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge.” Folk and Fairy Tales, edited by Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek, Broadview Press, 2009, pp. 33-35.
Stamberg, Susan. “The Colour Red: A History of Textiles.” National Public Radio, 13 Feb. 2007, www.npr.org/2007/02/13/7366503/the-color-red-a-history-in-textiles. Accessed 23 Nov. 2019.
Zipes, Jack. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 2nded., Routledge, 1993.
Little Red Riding Hood Meeting the Wolf via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Red_Riding_Hood_Meeting_the_Wolf.jpg). Public Domain.
Walter Crane, Little Red Riding Hood via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WalterCrane,Little_Red_Riding_Hood-5.png). Public Domain.
Little Red Riding Hood by Henry Leverseege via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Red_Riding_Hood_by_Henry_Leverseege.jpg). Public Domain.