Explained: Vermilion

When the fall 2011 line reaches retail, you will notice that the brilliant red orange color vermilion has made its way into the final collection.

Vermilion is a storied color that has been around since ancient times. In its naturally ocurring form, vermilion is actually mercuric sulfide, a toxic compound also known as “cinnabar”. Like most compounds containing mercury, the substance is toxic to humans, and significant exposure can lead to the psychic and emotional disturbances that result from mercury poisoning. Today, vermilion dyes and paints are synthetic and non-toxic, though natural cinnabar is still mined in China.

Vermillion Paint Swatch

We had been watching the red trend over the past few seasons, moving from the bluer reds of last year to vermilion red with an orange tone in current lines. Isabel Marant is a frequent offender, having used vermilion in several past collections. Hermes, Tory Burch and Chanel have all offered vermilion leather designs, and BMW recently offered vermilion as a paint option on its X5 SUV. We have also seen a lot of red hair both on the runway and in fashion editorials, which became a design inspiration for the fall line.

Red Hair

The origin of the word vermilion is even more interesting. It comes from the French vermeillon, meaning “bright red”. This is derived from the Latin word vermiculum, which means “little worm”, and refers to a small orange red insect the Romans used to make red dye (the same word is also the origin of the pasta shape “vermicelli” – doesn’t that make you hungry?).

Not sure what it is about the ancients using insects for coloring, but carmine is another, deeper shade of red that was made from the crushed up shells of a certain kind of beetle. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra allegedly used these insect bits as a sort of primitive lipstick.

In ancient Rome, the pigment was used to color the face of the statue of Jupiter, and to honor victorious generals as they made their return to Rome. It also decorated the cheeks of gladiators who fought in the Colisseum. In China, vermilion was used by royalty to create imperial writings. Traditional Hindu women still dab vermilion in the part on the top of their hair during certain ceremonies to indicate that they are married, while men wear the color on their forehead. 

The master Italian painter Titian used vermilion powder to create the bright red tones of paint in his fresco Assunta in 1518, which still hangs in the Santa Maria gloriosa dei Frari chapel in Venice. Caravaggio also kept vermilion in his palette to brighten the clothing and blood of his often grotesque imagery. 

Assunta by Titian

"Assunta" by Italian painter Titian


Judith Beheading Holofernes - Caravaggio

Caravaggio's "Judith Beheading Holofernes"

Vermilion also occurs in nature. Scientists gave the vermilion rockfish and vermilion flycatcher their names because of their bright red pigmentation. The Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona is a popular tourist attraction and photography subject. Several cacti also produce bright vermilion flowers.

It’s really no wonder how vermilion found its way into the line.

Vermilion in Nature

Clockwise from top: Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, a bright cactus flower, Vermilion Rockfish, Vermilion Flycatcher

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