Trends don't come out of a vacuum. Behind every innovation on the runway was an icon or a designer brave enough to try something new--whether it was putting slacks on women, bringing the A-line back, or putting red nail polish on the bottom of a pair of heels, there was someone who tried it first. In our New Style Icons column we will focus on people, objects, and moments that created fashion history. To start off, we're going to take a look at a saucy little innovation in cocktail party fashion: the red dress.
Bill Blass once said “When in doubt, wear red,” and it's not hard to see why. If you're trying to make a statement, you can't top this sizzling shade. Black and white whisper sophistication, but nothing beats red when you want to be bold. After all, this is the color that can literally stop traffic.
What does it mean to be the woman in red? In the West red is a racy color, associated with blood, passion, and lust. Dye didn't come cheap in Renaissance Europe, and so sporting a bright scarlet cloak or a vermilion dress meant you were an aristocrat—or at least the mistress of one.
In China, on the other hand, red is the color of fire, energy, and good fortune. Chinese nobles were just as fond of red as their European counterparts, but their use of different dyeing techniques created a distinctive cherry-colored shade known as “China red” which is still popular today, and the phrase “red China” takes on a whole new meaning when you go to traditional wedding ceremonies, where brides walk down the aisle in ruby-toned gowns.
The glamor of red spread in the 1940s and 1950s, when the starlets of the silver screen made a bright red lip the symbol of femme fatales everywhere. Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe wore matching scarlet sequins—with nails and mouths to match—when they played sexy show girls in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and classic fashion icon Audrey Hepburn made a bold cinematic entrance when she sported a red Givenchy evening gown and a diamond choker in “Funny Face.”
In 1959, an up-and-coming designer by the name of Valentino Garavani bet everything on red when he opened his debut collection with a tulle dress in a striking shade that mixed magenta, yellow, and black. The rest, as they say, is history. “Valentino red” was a smash hit, and by the 1960s celebrities like Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn were sporting it all over Hollywood.
Red is still the go to shade for the power set, from Chinese emperors and Spanish courtiers to modern royalty and heads of state. Princess Diana made it her signature color, and it's seen its share of time in the Oval Office. Nancy Reagan was known for her red pants suits, and Michelle Obama—one of the chicest First Ladies in history—turns heads and sets tongues wagging when she wears red designer dresses to state dinners. Who can blame her? When your date is the President, neutral shades just won't do.
Even in the “we've seen everything” era of the 21st century, red still has the power of shock and awe. Whether you think of blood, fire, or jewels when you see red, you can't deny that it gets your heart pumping. So the next time you're tempted to reach for that little black cocktail dress, why not go for scarlet instead? You're definitely in good company!