Why Are Theatrical Curtains Red?

20th Jan 2022
Why Are Theatrical Curtains Red?

One of the most famous and ubiquitous examples of luxury curtains in a public place is the thick, luxurious red velvet drapery that has become synonymous with theatrical productions, screenings and other gala events.

However, as with many theatrical traditions, whilst the colour red is not strongly associated with the theatrical world, how this became the case is for a mix of traditional, symbolic, superstitious and rather mundanely practical reasons.

Shaped By History

Whilst there are rituals and traditions that resemble theatre before them, the first culture to treat theatre as a separate activity to other ritualistic traditions was the Ancient Greeks, who would create a range of traditions that influence modern theatre to this day.

This Greek tradition would make it to Britain via the Roman Empire, who largely copied the amphitheatre structure and theatrical traditions from the Greeks through conquest.

The first step towards red being the colour of theatre came much later, with the development of the Italian opera in the 16th century and its spread throughout Europe.

Whilst countries would often have their own traditional colours, with French theatre houses tending to prefer gold and light blue, the connection between opera and Italy meant that their chosen colours of red and gold often would endure, and most opera houses would continue this tradition.

The reason why Italian opera houses chose red to begin with was similar to why they were fond of having gold linings and furnishings; it was a symbol of wealth and royalty and so to be draped in red and gold would help to curry favour with the heads of state. 

Most theatres at the time were heavily connected to the monarchy, and often relied on royal patronage to continue producing plays, which made red an ideal colour to use initially and once the tradition stuck would continue to this very day.

This is also the reason why many of the walls and seats were also a strong, deep shade of red often explicitly called ‘royal red’. This would also include the thick, main drape that would cover the front of the stage.

Shaped By Practicality

Beyond the traditions that have inspired the use of red curtains and drapery, there are several practical ways in which red has become the dominant colour of choice in theatres, particularly for curtains. 

In 1794, the Drury Lane Theatre in London would house the very first iron safety curtain, which was a thick, reinforced piece of drapery that could be dropped in case of a fire on the stage and act as an effective chimney to block the fire from spreading and ensure patrons can escape.

This was very important, as the main building material for theatres from the early Medieval period up until the development of the music hall was wood, which was used for the main facades, fixtures, fittings, props and stage pieces, which were often slotted into place during a performance.

This led to so many fires that it would become a legal requirement for all theatres above a certain size to have these safety curtains, which were thick and often red to match the rest of the drapery and fixtures.

Once the literal iron was combined with fire-resistant chemicals, this led to another practical benefit for red curtains; they were believed to show the chemical treatment less obviously than other colours, at least until modern fire safety treatments were found.

As well as the safety considerations, red happened to have a serendipitous benefit from a production standpoint as well.

Red has a wider wavelength than the other primary colours used in lighting, such as blue and green, which means that spotlights and other effects stand out better against a red background than they would against a blue or green background.

The reverse effect is taken advantage of in modern chromakey production techniques that often use blue and green curtains to allow for a range of effects to be added behind a live-action actor.

As well as this, one of the most important benefits is that because of the wider wavelength, the first colour we stop seeing in low-light conditions is red, which means that as the lights dim, we stop being able to see red before we stop being able to see greens and finally blues.

This means that when the lights go down for a performance, the red is first to disappear, meaning that your peripheral vision will not distract from the performance and allow you to focus on the action on stage.

Whilst many of these benefits can be found with other fabrics and techniques in a modern theatre setting, red is so intrinsically linked to the theatre, and to Victorian luxury in general that it is still used in theatres and more luxurious home environments.