The Red Effect
©Mimi Wolske, June 2012
WHAT DO YOU THINK of when someone says it? Sinner or saint? Warrior or prostitute? King or merchant?
Do you realize this single color has been on top and it has been on bottom: from association with the sun to accusation that if someone created the color, they consorted with the devil himself.
Red—a color with a multitude of meanings. Starting with basic communication, the histories and meanings of this scarlet color run deep. Did you know that in Hebrew, Adam (אדם) simply means human being, but it is also related to the word for red (adom)? And that the ancient Azetec word tlapalli means both red and, simply, color?
Research show red’s more vital connotations across the cultures of this planet are blood and passion, in all its forms. According to Greek mythology, the red rose was given birth from the blood of the slain Adonis, Aphrodite’s lover. Thus, red became associated with and the universal symbol of lovers and natures life/death cycle.
Remember I mentioned red with king and merchant? Well, historically, crimson has been associated with money, especially in clothing. Until the invention of synthetic dyes, red was worn by only the wealthy and was “couture” because producing it required the importing of dyestuffs, which drove up the costs and a lust for this ruby-colored clothing. Only nobility, aristocrats, persons of means wore this color until the 19th century…whether the color was even in vogue.
Red was the choice color of the Catholic Church, even when etiquette experts of the 18th century decried red as “vulgar and unsuitable”, advising any woman of good taste to refrain from wearing it.
A couple of times this color again fell out of fashion were when it was associated with aristocratic excess, but many women continued to wear it anyway. Then, again, in 1850 when Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Scarlet Letter seemed to cement red with adultery—well thank you Hawthorn for that condemning scarlet letter “A” forced on your protagonist Hester Prynne as a sign of her sin and setting red, again, sartorially out of step.
Then, during the mid-19th century, synthetic dyes brought a new clientele to the color red…the working class. In spite of it staining their skin, or worse, poisoning the wearer, people couldn’t help but wear the vibrant hue formerly the exclusive property of the “rich”. However, while it seemed to gain a “fan” following among the commoners, this cherry color lost its upper-crust “groupies”…it’s very ubiquity made id déclassé.
Today, it seems a red dress muddles men’s minds. There’s a recent study that shows that men rate women who wear red clothing as females more interested in sex; does that seem to hint that men, as humans, might be conditioned to associating this color with fertility?
Is that an effect that likely stems from biology? A New York psychologist thinks so based on when many of the primate females, from chimps to certain types of baboons called mandrills, become fertile, their estrogen levels peak, opening up their blood vessels and turning their faces bright red. This flushed complexion seems to give male primates the signal it time to make their move.
Other studies show human males seem more attracted to women clothed in red as opposed to some color such as white or beige. And, it appears that it doesn’t have to be a severe cut that exposes too much. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a red dress or sexy outfit at all. It can be a red T-shirt. RED, and its sister shade pink, immediately hearken love, lust, and sex.
So, whether it’s a “gentlemen-start-your-engines” date red dress or your aunt wearing her Valentine’s cheer with little candy hearts stitched to her sweater, red signals hubba-hubba.