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Seeing Red Continued: History of a Harlot

A while ago we looked into why red lingerie has been cited the sexiest colour for lingerie and the origins of red underwear.

From as early as the 15th century, clothing worn by prostitutes had to be distinguishable from that of other women, mainly because society shunned their lifestyle choice. Often a harlot had a yellow stripe on her clothing, but more commonly the stripe was red. Of course there is nothing to say what colour their underwear was, but perhaps this taboo naughtiness kick-started the ongoing trend. Not that wearing red lingerie means you wish to be a prostitute, of course, but it may have given the colour red that extra touch of kink!”

As we delved deeper into the history of Britain and prostitution we discovered a tantalising piece of evidence that may answer our question further about the origin of using red for passionate and sexy lingerie.

Depiction of a brothel

It is a well know fact that prostitution is one of the world's oldest professions. Throughout the ages reigning bodies across Britain accommodated this profession in a variety of ways. The attitude of the authorities towards prostitutions and licentious behaviour in London fluctuated according to who was in power.

Richard I, 1189-1199, took a very liberal view towards prostitution. He was a great fanatic of London's brothels and found himself arrested in a Brothel in Paris. Richard I was succeeded by King John who also enjoyed visits with London's sex sellers.

Brothel dressed in red

King John's son, Henry III grew up surrounded by London's sex scene and an open attitude towards visiting prostitutes. He became one of the most hoarding, close-fisted monarchs Britain has ever seen; high taxes and restraints on London's entertainment. And yet the brothels was one area that Henry III turned a blind eye to.

The mood changed significantly when Edward I came to power in 1272. He was a moral crusader, evicting prostitutes, pimps and madams from the walls of the City of London and closing all brothels. Legislation was put in place to evict sex workers and anyone selling sex would be imprisoned for a minimum of forty days.

He considered the presence of prostitutes, or 'women of evil life,' attracted criminals, murderers and general evil. In later history, it was discovered that Edward I derived an income from brothels in Southwark, London's brothel area, and that he also issued a licence to Isaac of Southwark to run a brothel.

Brothel with prostitutes

Edward II was happy to let the London brothels flourish, he ignored the legislation put in place by Edward I. Rumours are he preferred boys. But everything was about the change with Edward III succeeded the throne.

It is said that Edward III had an enlightened attitude towards London's sex scene. He came to the throne in 1327 and reviewed the legislation set in place by Edward I. Brothels, pimps, madams, and prostitutes were welcomed back within the city walls and allowed to continue trading as long as prostitutes wore a distinguishing mark in the form of a red rosette upon their attire.

This system was originally operated in Avignon, France, and further afield in Europe to distinguish a prostitute from every other female going about their daily business.

An aiguilette

In France, the authorities were extensively attempting to eradicate the sex trade. In particular in Avignon where the red-light district, or 'hot-street', was particularly well developed, prostitutes were forced to distinguish their trades due to ordinances that were taking place. The Avignon prostitutes wore the original red rosette later worn in London. Called an 'aiguilette', a knotted cord, harlots originally wore this knotted cord in a colour contrasting their dress, which was required to be worn conspicuously on her clothing. In later years it was required to be a red aiguilette.

In Switzerland, prostitutes were forced to wear an insignia indicative of their profession in the form of little red caps.

One reason for making British prostitutes wear the rosette was so they could be distinguished from housewives and ordinary women going about their daily business. In the hope that this would deter men from approaching them and offering sex.

Another reason for this obvious distinction was due to the sumptuary regulations that Edward III was putting in place. The feudal order was breaking down and the nobility imposed restrictions on dress to maintain visible 'class distinctions'.

Brothel and Prostitutes

These restrictions also had to be applied to prostitutes as many prostitutes were wearing finer and 'classier' clothes to flaunt their goods and skills but also to escape the prosecution.

Similarly, prostitutes were banned from wearing aprons which may suggest they were a house-wife.

Later in 1355, London authorities banned prostitutes from wearing fur and required them to wear 'ray' or striped vestments often in red and white or black and white stripes so they would be conspicuous.

For more information about the colour red and the origin of red lingerie please read our original blog.