Of all the fashion clichés, one of the most difficult to dislodge is that Christmas equals red. Whether thanks to holly berries or Santa’s suit, come December, out come the red clothes.
Red isn’t just for Christmas, though. It’s the colour of the Aids ribbon, now in its 20th year as a symbol. It’s the subject of a fashion lawsuit in New York between Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent – the former designer is trying to block the latter label from putting red soles on its shoes. It’s the name of a room in the recently-launched Valentino Garavani Virtual Fashion Museum that is filled with 65 red dresses. It’s the signature shade of the Republican party and the Labour party and is so popular a tie colour among current American presidential candidates that Vanity Fair recently published a piece headlined, “Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, Enemies in Matching Red Ties”. For decades Elio di Rupo, the prime minister of Belgium, has sported a signature red bow tie in public. (The question of why red is so popular was the subject of a symposium held in New York this month, “Red: Allure, Style and Significance”, run by the arts education organisation Initiatives in Art and Culture.)
“Red can be a controversial colour,” says Norma Kamali, who created the red swimsuit worn by actress Farrah Fawcett in her 1976 pin-up poster, which sold more than 12m copies. “We’re empowered or objectified by it. Everyone can wear red but not everyone is comfortable wearing red,” says Kamali.
Yet, says Hal Rubenstein, author of 100 Unforgettable Dresses (Harper Design), which includes the 1972 red sequin mini-dress worn by Liza Minnelli in her show Liza with a Z, the off-the-shoulder red ballgown that marked Julia Roberts’ transformation in Pretty Woman, and three Valentino numbers, red “is psychologically uplifting.”
Reactions to red depend partly on cultural context: it represents fortune in China; insightfulness in India; aristocracy in England; and passion in many western societies.
Once, red dye was too expensive for anyone except for the wealthy but, with the advent of synthetic dyes that can achieve Pantone perfection, we can “all afford to wear our red hearts on our sleeves”, says Susan Scafidi of Fordham University, the first US law professor to offer a course in fashion law.
Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, says: “As the Chinese and the Russians become ever more important players in the world of luxury fashion, red is more relevant than ever, because both [societies] regard red as an especially beautiful and auspicious colour.” Note the red Alexander McQueen dress that Michelle Obama wore to the state dinner held at the White House for the Chinese premier and his wife.
“In an accelerated world where there are so many competing sights and sounds, red draws the eye and the mind,” says Lisa Koenigsberg, president of Initiatives in Art and Culture, of the rationale behind her organisation’s conference. “In a sea of women in black dresses, the woman who walks in wearing red stops traffic.”
Case in point: at a charity fundraiser last summer (called the Love Ball) held at Valentino Garavani’s estate outside Paris, the dress code was white and silver – except for the gown worn by hostess Natalia Vodianova, designed by Valentino in a traffic-halting shade of scarlet. Among the throngs of great and good, including actresses Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow, Vodianova stood out like a beacon. “Red is very important because when I started my job, I always thought red would be my lucky colour,” says Valentino, who has been including “Valentino red” dresses in his collections since 1959. “For this reason I studied a new red and I put it all my shows.”
Pointedly, Valentino never trademarked his favourite red, unlike Christian Louboutin, who started painting the soles of his shoes with a bottle of nail polish in 1992 and trademarked his red-soled shoes in 2008. Though the use of red soles as “aesthetic functionality” is currently under appeal, Susan Scafidi says the issue centres on the specificity of Louboutin’s use of red. “The sophisticated consumer knows that many Valentino dresses are red but not all red dresses are Valentino,” she notes. “But the same consumer who sees red soles has immediately come to think, ‘Louboutin.’ ”
Whatever the outcome of that case, it’s clear that red is, literally and metaphorically, in our blood. If in doubt, consider the fact that AkzoNobel, the world’s largest colour manufacturer and maker of paints, has voted a juicy red (Terra Cotta Rose) its 2012 colour of the year. “It is,” says Barbara Richardson, AkzoNobel’s director of colour marketing, “the colour of possibilities.” This month and for every month to come.