The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the young girl who set out one day to bring her grandmother a basket of baked goods and ended up being rescued from the belly of a devious wolf by a woodcutter, remains such an enduring one in part because of the eponymous ensemble sported by its heroine. However, in the oral tradition from which the tale originated, there was no little red hood. This addition was made later by Charles Perrault, who penned a version of the story in 1697 and in it described his diminutive heroine as, “le Petit Chaperon Rouge”, a detail that was then adopted by all subsequent interpretations.
The significance of this little red hat, or hood, has since been much disputed and mythologised by everyone from Carl Jung to Jack Zipes. Interpretations run from the fanciful to the psychoanalytic, including one in which the tale’s heroine symbolises the return of Spring to the forest after a long winter, and another in which the red cap itself represents the crimson light of dawn.
In Eric Fromm’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the tale, he refers to the heroine as “the pubescent girl”, embarking on her first perilous journey as a mature woman and attempting to avoid the pitfalls of sexuality. The wolf naturally serves as the lustful man in this interpretation, threatening to literally devour the girl if she strays from the path ordained by her parents. Fromm perceives the warnings of the girl’s parents, such as “don’t stray from the path” and “don’t break the bottle”, as implicit warnings against abandoning her virtue. The wolf’s seductive language reinforces this reading as he attempts to use the sensual beauty of the forest to persuade the girl to stray: “look around and hear how sweetly the birds are singing”.
If Fromm’s reading resonates with our enduring cultural preoccupation with female virtue, an alternative historical interpretation casts the heroine in a rather more potent light. The Grimm brothers were conscious of the political context within which they were writing and imbued their myriad interpretations of fairytales, including Little Red Riding Hood, with pertinent details. The red cap in this case seems to suggest the Phrygian caps, or bonnets rouges, worn by insurgents during the Stamp-Paper Revolt that erupted in Brittany in 1675. The caps were henceforth associated with anti-establishment movements and have been adopted by revolutionary factions and solidarity movements throughout history.
Whether Little Red Riding Hood is indeed sporting a bonnet rouge, or a cap symbolic of her precarious virtue, the sheer breadth of the interpretations offered up by such an unassuming item of clothing is quite remarkable. Perhaps because the colour red, symbol of passion and rage, and virginal maidens are each such mythologised elements of the literary canon in isolation, the marriage of the two in such a beguiling and surreal tale as this proves alchemical.