Fictional Fashion: Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood (1983)
as illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

“Little Red Riding Hood” wears one of the most iconic pieces of fictional fashion ever, but what is it?

The versions of the story that we are most familiar with today largely describe her in a red cloak – a “riding hood”, which was a large, enveloping cape with a hood that women wore riding in winter. Since the story clearly takes place in spring or summer (since she is stopping to pick flowers), it’s an odd garment to be wearing. But spring can still be cold, so perhaps she needs the extra warmth, even if there are flowers growing!

Little Red cap as illustrated by
Eugen Klimsch in the mid-1800s

In the older versions, especially those from Germany, Red doesn’t wear a cape at all. She’s “Little Red Cap” and various illustrators imagined the cap as a mob cap or a bonnet. Given that women and girls often wore caps all the time, this was an easy thing to make bright and iconic.

I like the illustrations where she has a close-fitting bonnet-like cap, such as this one from Eugen Klimsch. It’s cute and feels younger to me than the flopping mob caps generally do.

But Red has gone through so many incarnations in the modern era. Sometimes she’s a fierce wolf hunter in an oddly cute short hooded cape, other times she’s a wide-eyed child in a red cloak with ribbons hanging down. The classic tale is somewhere in between, but the modern movies and stage adaptations certainly play with every possible version of her!

The cape as drawn by Arthur Rackam, 1909

While the red cap or cape is the most iconic part of the story and generally all the name the main character gets, it’s rarely described and plays almost no part in the story itself! The tale would be effectively the same if Red was wearing something completely different. But at this point, it’s such a part of her story that it makes an appearance of some kind in just about every version.

Into the Woods, a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, actually incorporates the cape as a magical item in and of itself. It becomes one of four iconic fairy tale objects that must be collected for a magic spell.

The red riding hood is so evokative by itself that it can be reimagined endlessly into different shapes and styles without making the character any less recognizable, even though there’s nothing else about her that is!

Red Riding Hood is a favorite subject for doll artists and nearly every major doll designer has created a version of her. From traditional to sweet to sexy, there is a doll version of nearly every incarnation of Red Riding Hood. These are just a few of them from recent years.

Danielle Ferland in her wolf wrap
in Into the Woods

One of the things I loved most about the story when I was a kid is almost never used anymore, though. In the end of some of the old versions (after Grandma comes up with the cruelest death for the wolf possible), Red hunts down her own wolf and makes herself a cape of it’s pelt. I assume this detail is simply to show she has become self-sufficient and wise enough not to fall for the same tricks again, but I always loved the idea of her trading in her innocent little girl cape or bonnet for a (probably much warmer) fur wrap of her own making from a wolf she hunted and skinned herself. I mean, it’s the ultimate proof that Red has come out of her ordeal stronger than ever before!

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