Two weeks ago I jumped into the history of horror and glamour and their relationship with color. Red is a complicated color because, like black, it has meant many competing things in human history.
Red paint, made of dirt, is present on the oldest tomb paintings discovered so far.
The practice of wearing a red thread or wool ribbon as protection or healing is so “widespread in world folklore that mentions of it can be found in Greek and Egyptian mythology, ancient Chinese legends and contemporary Chinese death rituals, soul-loss rituals of the Lolo tribe of western China, folk customs from England, Wales, and Ireland as well as the United States, Indian wedding traditions, childbirth rituals in Romania and Greece, and Jewish fertility rituals.” (Bronner, Jewishness, 2008)
In western history the best red dyes were expensive. As a result, red is associated with power and wealth. Roman citizens were allowed to wear a simple edging of the fabulously expensive “Tyrrhenean purple” worn by their emperors. Only the imperial family could wear whole garments this color, which was produced by gathering glands of certain mollusks. This dye created a rich bluish red, which remained a European status color long after the shellfish had been driven extinct.
In the late-antique Mediterranean world, red trimmings or words woven into or stitched onto garments carried the power of protective prayers, as did the wearing of a red wool thread on the left wrist recommended in the Kabbalah.
Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) dressed his precious son Edward in red and cloth of gold for his first official portrait in 1538. Portraits like these were intended to impress their viewers with the royal family’s vitality.
The protective qualities of red underclothing must have been a popular idea. Wills from England in the 1500s, from varied social classes, show a preference for red hose and petticoats.
The Christian/Catholic church co-opted both the protective and conspicuous consumption parts of red. Pope Innocent gave his cardinals, “princes of the church” the right to wear red caps in 1244-45 C.E. Scarlet, the official term for this bright red, is still the official garb of Catholic cardinals. Many cardinals were painted in their rich red vestments, symbolizing their status in the Church and society.
By the late 16th century in England, red vestments became a florid expression of Catholic authority, set against the sober respectability of Protestant dress black. This association with the heretical old church on top of the color’s association with human blood, particularly with women and childbirth, led the color to begin to be associated with women, unbridled sexuality, and sin.
Red’s biggest power holdout from the 17th-20th centuries was the British army uniform. The “redcoats” of Paul Revere’s (mythical) 1775 warning comprised feared military organization which made possible the growth of the Empire of Great Britain.
By the 19th century, menswear had given up color almost entirely, as character began to be associated with the hidden interior life, not one’s choice of attire. Two things accompanied this shift: “fashion”, the quickly changing cycle of garments which conveys both status and belonging, began to be associated solely with women. And “fashion”, an expression of the shallow and exterior being, became frivolous.
Nathaniel Hawthorne used this idea that women were unable to resist temptation in his novel “The Scarlet Letter”, written in 1850. The book, set in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640s, relates the trials of Hester Prynne. Hester is condemned as an adulterer. Because she gave birth to a child while unmarried, Hester is required to wear a red letter “A” stitched to her clothes and to live apart from her town with her illegitimate daughter.
As Hester lives with her shame, the “A” she wears begins to mean “able” to some of her neighbors. She supports herself and her child with her skilled needlework. In addition, she cares for the local poor. By contrast, the father of her child never confesses his guilt publicly and dies miserable.
This story caught the public imagination and has been made into 12 movie versions, 7 of those between 1908 and 1926. Hester is also a regular reference in popular film and music. Here in the 1926 version, film star Lillian Gish plays Prynne bravely enduring her public punishment.
Margaret Mitchell referenced Prynne’s proud public display in her 1936 novel “Gone With the Wind”. After Scarlett O’Hara and her best friend’s husband are seen embracing illicitly, Scarlett’s husband insists she attend her friend Melanie’s party anyway. Rhett Butler tells Scarlett to wear a dress that reflects the shame of her true feelings towards Melanie’s husband.
Vivien Leigh starred in the 1939 film of “Gone With the Wind”. The red velvet gown with spangles, designed by Walter Plunkett for this scene, suggested the scandal an extra-marital affair would have caused 19th century Scarlett. It is also sexy and slinky and stunning. This is the dress most people remember from this movie.
The conflation of red form-fitting dresses with female sex appeal continued throughout the 20th century. In the film spot that opens this post, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell play showgirls in “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds”, made in 1953. Monroe and Russell, two of the sexiest film stars of the 1950s, play actresses trying to marry businessmen. Their characters aren’t as respectable as the men they pursue, but they are smarter and a lot more fun.
The naughty glamour and sexual implications of red dresses continued in films for the next 50 years. In 1956, Brigitte Bardot plays a wildly sensuous orphan woman in “Et dieu cree la femme – …And God Created Woman”. Her sexiness is seen as a force of nature, but destructive. Her red dress depicts an icon of feminine uncontrollable sexuality.
A red dress is again equated with transgressive sexiness in 1983’s sumptuous vampire movie “The Hunger”. Catherine Deneuve stars as a well dressed but lethal lesbian vampire.
Another red gown that haunts the popular imagination was worn by Hollywood prostitute Vivian Ward on her breakthrough date in 1990’s film “Pretty Woman”. Corporate raider Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere, buys Vivian a designer gown when he takes her on a real date, symbolizing his growing love for her. Designer Marilyn Vance made Julia Roberts, wearing this form-fitting gown, an enduring image of the naughty woman with heart of gold. This time, however, it’s her transition towards respectability that gives her the amazing dress.
The red dress IS the characterization of Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, the 1988 film with both live and animated characters. Roger’s wife, an animated nightclub singer, is reduced to her secondary sex characteristics: big breasts, long red hair, pale skin, tiny waist, and curvy legs: all barely contained in a cartoon dress. She spells this out, saying, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
Love, sex, blood, evil, and death converge particularly in vampire movies. No surprise then that one of the most visually rich vampire films ever made, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) also contains one of the most memorable red gowns. Francis Ford Coppola, the director, declared “The costumes will be the set!” when he didn’t receive the set budget he requested.
The character Mina, played by Winona Ryder, is the reincarnation Count Dracula’s lost love. From the beginning, there is tension between the two characters, which Mina does not understand until she marries attorney Jonathan Harker. The red gown symbolizes her seduction by the Count, leaving the innocence of her youth behind.
This Victorian-inspired bustled dress was a center piece in the Museum at FIT’s exhibition “Gothic: Dark Glamour”. Designed by artist Eiko Ishioka, this red dress is widely imitated in steampunk and goth circles as well as convention costume play.
That female sexuality, expressed in red, threatens humanity was illustrated literally in the television series “Battlestar Galactica”. In this series, androids rise up to destroy humankind. One of the advance android party, Number 6 was created in the shape of a beautiful human woman. For the first season, she is seen only by her human lover, and mainly in a form fitting, body baring red dress. 6 seduces Dr. Gaius Baltar in order to get access to the security mainframe he maintains. Bloodlessly cool, when the explosion (whose program she uploaded) destroys his city, she bends over Baltar and saves him from the blast.
As we enter the holiday season, I encourage you all to choose your party dresses carefully! They embody ancient traditions of color, power, and sex appeal!