Which one is your favourite? Is it Julia Roberts’ opera gown in Pretty Woman? Or perhaps it’s Audrey Hepburn’s strapless column dress in Funny Face? Maybe Nicole Kidman’s silk satin bodice gown in Moulin Rouge is the red dress of your dreams? Or is it Kelly LeBrock’s vermilion off-the-shoulder number from The Woman in Red? Which is mine? Without doubt, it’s Vivien Leigh’s silk, velvet, ostrich feather-adorned burgundy frock, which she wore in Gone with the Wind for that excruciating scene in which she’s forced to face the woman whose husband she’s been accused of having an affair with. In a movie filled with opulent and lavish costumes, this is the piece I remember most for its no-nonsense notice-me attitude.
Isn’t that what a red dress imbues a woman with? The kind of confidence – no, swagger – she needs to face the world from time to time. There’s nothing like a bad break-up to make a woman focus on what she’s wearing. When Kourtney Kardashian split from her husband of nine years because of his errant lifestyle, she made a red carpet appearance in a stunning navel-grazing raspberry Balmain jumpsuit. Shortly after they split in 2016, singer Selena Gomez left ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber in no doubt of what he was missing when she wore a divine red leather Louis Vuitton floor-length gown to a high-profile event.
But a red dress isn’t simply about revenge dressing. Irish actress Ruth Negga chose a crimson Valentino gown to wear to the Academy Awards last year for her first Oscar nomination – exactly the kind of occasion you might need extra nerve to navigate. Rihanna, meanwhile, has never looked as elegant as she did at the 2013 Grammys in that beautiful, whimsical, custom-made ruby Alaïa gown. If the LBD is every woman’s sartorial secret weapon, a red dress is more like an assault rifle. When you choose a red gown, you dress to kill.
Ruth Negga at the 2017 Academy Awards wearing Valentino
Of course, that’s when you get it absolutely right –red carpets everywhere are haunted by the ghosts of dreadful red dresses past – Rita Ora’s 2013 VMA silk Donna Karan dress, Bella Hadid’s similarly OTT poppy red slip dress, and Jennifer Lopez’s burgundy bejewelled “naked” dress from 2015. Each of these women forgot, or ignored, the cardinal rule when dressing in red: a shade so heavily associated with sex requires a modicum of modesty to appear chic not cheap.
Is any other colour so potently symbolic? Its associations are myriad, from revolution to religion, from danger to desire, from authority to luxury. It’s no wonder women have always been wary of wearing a colour that is as closely associated with the overtly sexual cartoon character Jessica Rabbit as it is with the piousness of The Vatican. Red is a complicated colour; direct, yes, but ambiguous too. In China, brides often wear red rather than white, yet in Western culture, the phrase red-light district has kept this colour closely associated with the world’s “oldest profession”.
I remember studying Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in university. A single woman who gives birth to a child in 17th century Massachusetts is forced to wear a scarlet-coloured letter A (for adulteress) on her dress. She is literally branded by the colour red as much as she is by the significance of the letter A. Red has always been associated with licentious living. Indeed, Nicole Kidman’s character Satine in Moulin Rouge was, of course, a courtesan. While in Gone with the Wind, when Vivien Leigh’s character, Scarlett O’Hara, is handed that unapologetically ostentatious burgundy gown to wear by her spurned husband, he remarks, “Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion.” He wanted her to look like the whore he believed she was.
Yet over the past several years, red has become increasingly dominant on the catwalks, and in fact, this year, it ruled the runways completely, from Simone Rocha and Roksanda Ilincic to Versace and Valentino. Why? Perhaps because we’ve begun to see more women of power and influence choose red, reaffirming it as a colour of confidence and assertiveness. From Frances Fitzgerald to Theresa May, Michelle Obama to Hillary Clinton, female politicians have been re-appropriating this once inappropriate shade. Businesswomen too. Three years ago, when Facebook COO and founder of Leanin.org Sheryl Sandberg appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine, she wore red, while fashion tycoon Natalie Massenet chose an exquisite red Ralph & Russo suit to accept her damehood from Buckingham Palace last year. Red is becoming the signifier of success rather than sex, which is probably why so many more celebrities now choose it for their red carpet appearances – Alessandra Ambrosio, Miranda Kerr, Ginnifer Goodwin, Karlie Kloss, Emilia Clarke and Dakota Johnson to name just a few this year.
Michelle Obama wearing Jason Wu at the 2013 Inaugural Ball
Designer Bill Blass once described red as “the ultimate cure for sadness”, and this is surely what has always made red such an intriguing and enticing shade. For all its mixed messages, the colour red is a sure-fire mood-booster – Santa wears red, for goodness sake! And perhaps this is what designers had in mind this season with their myriad interpretations of this devilish hue. Rather than making any sort of grandiose political statement about the turbulent times we live in, they’ve simply decided to lift our spirits, to remind us that there’s always something to smile about, even if it’s nothing more than the utterly unexpected pop of robust raspberry in amongst Victoria Beckham’s sober palette of sensible navy.
And the way to wear red right now? From head to toe, layering ever so slightly different hues. Take inspiration from Rokanda, Max Mara, No 21 and Ryan Roche, and you’ll have nothing to fear for the party season… except perhaps some seasonal drunk serenading you with “Lady in Red”.