In the business and legal worlds, so taught my high school debate teacher, red is a power color. My dance teacher taught that less is more when trying to stand out. But red dresses are designed to attract attention and are worn to make statements, to distract, or as a disguise.
Think of the (often ill-fitting) red dresses you see characters wear in movies. In “Music & Lyrics,” Drew Barrymore’s character borrows a red dress to help her feel confident enough to confront a former lover. Rhett forces Scarlett O’Hara to wear a red dress so she’ll look the part of the homewrecker she tried to be. Julia Roberts’s “Pretty Woman” character wears a red dress to go to the opera with her John, as if they’re a normal couple who do this often. Peggy Carter wears red to let Steve Rogers in “Captain America” know she’s interested in him. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Downton Abbey,” “She’s All That,” “The Princess Bride,” “Titanic,” “Outlander,” “Clueless,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Arrow,” “The Princess Diaries 2,” countless Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and countless other movies and TV shows feature women wearing red dresses for one of these purposes.
I love the color red, but I’ve only worn a few red dresses over the years. Here are the stories of three of them.
The first is a dress of my mother’s. She wore it in high school, but in middle school I was playing Queen Isabella de Castille in a school play and needed something floor-length and regal. The dress my mom remembered, and which my grandmother mailed me, is a somewhat muted crimson with a deep V-neck. It’s not inappropriate, but lower than anything I’d worn thus far. The skirt billowed as I moved and the draping at the shoulder skimmed my upper arms. It was the first time I felt mature and beautiful at school. I was playing a queen. I made a headdress and veil and wore my mother’s red dress. I’d been in at least half a dozen plays or musicals to that point, but I had never before played someone whose voice carried such weight, who was always listened to. I certainly didn’t feel that way at school. I was awkward, anxious, and had been bullied. I had forged together some good friends and had good relationships with most everyone in my class. Still, that dress. Sitting on a throne, surveying my classmates in my mother’s red dress, I projected a confidence I’d never been able to display before. And if I could do it once, I could do it again.
I wore a floor-length, mermaid-style neon green dress absolutely covered in sequins to my junior prom. If I ever had a teen movie-style standout moment, it was in that green prom dress. Every single day of school, I wore a personal uniform of jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, and hoodie, but in my neon green gown, glittering as I moved, I felt light and relished the looks of surprise I received. Near the end of the following summer, my mom and I found a backless, wine-colored prom dress left over from the previous season. This dress was more mature, more romantic, than anything I’d ever put it. In the green dress, I had been vivid, effervescent, but in the red dress I would be daring, mature, desirable. My classmates would remember me differently. This was senior prom, after all. I think we paid $30 for it and I wore it, strappy and gauzy and slinky, in my room, trying to take pictures in the mirror that would capture what I felt while wearing this dress. But it didn’t fit perfectly, and by the time we got to March, I’d decided not to wear it. I was ready to leave high school. I loved my small circle of friends and planned to stay in contact with them forever, but everyone and everything else I was ready to leave. I didn’t care as much how they remembered me, or if they remembered me at all. So I chose to buy a new dress, one that made me feel my best and that befit the new era of my life I would soon be entering: a huge white princess dress, strapless, and overlaid with blue beaded flowers. I donated the hardly worn red dress, along with my green one, to a children’s hospital for their patients’ prom. I like to imagine the girl who got my red gown, and hope it helped her step forward boldly, and helped her say all she wished to that night.
Several years ago, one of my friends from college and his girlfriend broke up. A few months later, she had a new boyfriend but he’d chosen not to date anyone else until he graduated law school and moved back home, where he’d join a small local practice. But first was “lawyer prom”, and my friend’s ex had a new boyfriend, so he asked me to be his plus one. To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of notice for this event, but I happened to have a bright red, strapless dress with deep pockets tucked in the very back of my closet. I’d bought it several years earlier on sale, but had never worn it. His friends hadn’t met me before, as it’d always just been the two of us when we went to the movies or out for lunch. I got the sense that he wanted to escape the constant drumbeat of law school for a while and we’d been friends and classmates all four years of college. So the night of lawyer prom, the red dress to dinner with his friends said, “I am a force you know nothing about.” In the ballroom, where we bumped into my friend’s ex and new beau, my dress said, “Look at me; he’s doing fine without you.” I kept thinking about my senior prom, how ready I’d been to leave and what I had wanted to say, and felt honored that I got to help my friend say it. Plus, going alone to couple-y things sucks (I’d been to enough weddings to be absolutely sure of that).
There’s visual power to a red dress, or they wouldn’t be onscreen, let alone in our lives. There’s also the Jessica Rabbit factor, the woman in the red dress as a seductress or just arm candy. To that point, I’ll leave you with the words of the Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, an on-screen fashion icon whose mysteries I’ve been rewatching lately: “A woman should dress first and foremost for her own pleasure. If these things happen to appeal to men, well, that really is a side issue.”