In the 1930s, Ethel Merman, who was once described by Kenneth Tynan as “the most relaxed brass section on earth”, sang a song called The Lady in Red. The song included the line: “She’s a bit gaudy, but oh Lordy, all the fellows go crazy for the Lady in Red.” Nothing’s changed. The effect of a red dress is universal, if not quite eternal.
It is, of course, all about the colour. Red satin and lace certainly have the edge on wool or cotton, but, on the whole, design and fabric are not really that important. It’s clear enough why. Red, especially scarlet or flame, is seen as the colour of danger. It is also regarded as the most sexual of all colours.
Provocative, challenging, enticing, it suggests a femme fatale able to seduce most men.
Valentino has included red dresses in his collections for 40 years, until he retired in 2007, and his lead has been followed over the years by a diverse gaggle of designers, including Cavalli and McQueen. To work well, however, red requires a good figure, a deep tan and, preferably, blonde hair.
What it often gets, once removed from the glamorous perfection of the catwalk, is figures more lumpy than svelte, hectic, red cheeks and undistinguished, mousy hair. Not a good look. The fact is that red, fabulous as it can be, is also cruelly deceptive. It works for very few women and only in very specific situations. As Anita Loos once said, most women would be “better to stick to a nice, sexy beige”.
(First published December 2005)
Picture source; Valentino retrospective. From left: 2002 Collection; 2004; 2003; 2005 (center, top); 2002 (center, foreground); 2005; 2005; and 1987. Jason Schmidt.