- Thought to allude to the former practice of binding government documents in red-coloured tape
- The binding tape once used for holding important documents together.
- 1892, Walter Besant, chapter II, in The Ivory Gate: A Novel, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, OCLC 16832619:
- At twilight in the summer there is never anybody to fear—man, woman, or cat—in the chambers and at that hour the mice come out. They do not eat parchment or foolscap or red tape, but they eat the luncheon crumbs.
- (metonymically, idiomatic) Time-consuming regulations or bureaucratic procedures.
- All the red tape and paperwork that goes on there prevents any progress.
- red tape gone mad (idiomatic)
- For the figurative sense of bureaucratic procedures, the metaphor is often extended, e.g. cutting [through] red tape, bound up in red tape.