Image Credit: “Red Dresses” by Elena Filatov
Red is my favourite colour.
I have heard it said that red is a masculine colour, a patriarchal colour; the colour of war and Catholics and monarchs and the poppies of Flanders Fields. It is a primary colour, and as scholars have long deemed the cultural perception of masculinity as “active” and femininity “passive,” I can see the connection between the energy of red and traditional ideas and stereotypes around masculinity. It is true that red is the colour of violence, destruction, rage and injustice—a mutilated body, a fatal fire, an ambulance siren, a volcanic eruption. Red is a warning: a stop sign; a traffic light; a penalty card. Red rarely seems to mean anything good for women. It is a feminist warning in literature: the colour of a room suffocating a girl on the cusp of adolescence; the colour of the handmaids’ robes; a glistening strawberry fed to an unsuspecting Tess; the scarlet letter A emblazoned into Hester Prynne’s clothing. A bouquet of roses on Valentine’s Day may cement the association of red with love for some, but it is just as often used to signify promiscuity and sexual maturity. After all, red carries connotations of prostitution, of the red-light district. The Moulin Rouge literally translates to the “red mill.” Red is a bold call to lust, passion, sex, violence, action.
It is time for women to reclaim the colour red.
I devoured Maggie Nelson’s book The Red Parts in two sittings, a slim volume which relates the murder of Nelson’s aunt Jane in 1969 and the experiences of Nelson and her family at the trial of the killer convicted for the murder some thirty-five years later. By coincidence, within an hour or so of finishing reading The Red Parts, I turned on the television to find that director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals was playing on one of the film channels. I arrived just in time for the scene that makes me sick to my stomach, the scene where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character and his family are forced off the road by a group of sadistic rednecks in the middle of the night on a remote Texas highway. I remember watching the film in the cinema and feeling thoroughly nauseated at that exact scene. As Isla Fisher, playing the wife and mother, pleads with the men to be reasonable and clings to her teenage daughter, trying to both protect and reassure her and succeeding in doing neither, I defy any woman to watch and not feel the same brand of queasy anxiety. It captures the anticipatory terror of an inevitable rape with unnerving accuracy. Nocturnal Animals was slammed by some feminist critics upon its release for glamourising rape and violence against women, particularly in the highly stylised way the women’s naked corpses were laid out for discovery, but I was too captivated by the storyline at the time to heed this. Re-watching the film in the wake of reading The Red Parts, I couldn’t ignore those criticisms.
Red is sexual violence and reproductive trauma. A woman’s trauma. The colour of cherries and virginity and the promise of something torn. The colour of menstruation and childbirth, events awash with blood.
Following the brutal murder of her aunt, Nelson talks about how when watching a film her mother “couldn’t tolerate scenes that involved the abduction of women, especially into cars, and she couldn’t watch women be threatened with guns, especially guns pointed at their heads.” Nelson continues: ‘Try going to the movies with this rule, and you will be surprised at how often such scenes come up.” Having spent the years since my mum’s death avoiding films that deal with mothers with terminal illnesses and the deaths of mothers in general, I can sympathise with this problem. Nocturnal Animals, of course, exploits the classically gendered abduction-rape-kill narrative mercilessly. The film relies heavily on the colour red to relay this meaning, not only with the crude symbolism of blood but in everything from the maroon walls that flank Amy Adams’ character as she sits at her laptop to her flaming red hair.
Men are from Mars, the red planet.
Ruminating on The Red Parts and Nocturnal Animals, I was alarmed later that same night to see a video clip on social media of an anonymous VICE interview with a perpetrator of acid attacks, which are becoming an increasingly popular method of inflicting violence in modern-day Britain. The man said that “nine times of out ten,” he would choose to target a woman over a man in an acid attack. The reason he gave? “They love their beauty.”
I search for red gemstones on Google and find so much more than ruby and garnet. I find red jasper, red fluorite, red agate, cuprite, red oligoclase, fire opal, red sunstone, carnelian and sardonyx, andesine, red zircon, red spinel, imperial topaz, pezzottaite, red beryl. A thousand glittering stones I want to adorn myself with.
Pulling apart the implications of the acid attacker’s toxic statement requires more patience than I possess. In the interests of considering women, beauty, and the colour red, here is a short history of women wearing red lipstick:
- Lipstick dates back to as early as Ancient Egypt. Queen Cleopatra was rumoured to crush beetles and ants (and today we still crush cochineal insects for their red colour, which is often used in food products like sweets) in her search for the perfect shade of red lip stain.
- With few exceptions, in Europe until the early twentieth century, red lipstick was largely seen as the reserve of prostitutes. Queen Victoria famously declared makeup to be “impolite.” Coco Chanel, fashion magnate but also notorious Nazi collaborator, believed red lipstick and red nails to be vulgar and garish. Adolf Hitler himself loathed and forbade red lipstick. If you are searching for a reason to apply red lipstick, let it be in protest against the prudish opinions of Nazis hellbent on policing the female body.
- The suffragettes paraded through New York City with their lips painted brick-red in a sign of solidarity. You are in their exquisite company when you don red lipstick.
- By the mid-twentieth century, red lipstick was a Hollywood staple, worn by, amongst others, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ava Gardner. It is still worn by A-List celebrities today. Listen to the Rihanna song, “Red Lipstick.” Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary advice to “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together,” remains stellar.
- Femme fatales in the noir genre are often depicted with red lipstick and red nails. Eva Green in Sin City: A Dame to Kill for is rendered entirely in black and white other than her eyes and her stand-out red lips and nails. The femme fatale is a tired trope and yet still more three-dimensional than the virgin or the whore.
An extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO, who was among the British soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945: ‘shortly after the British Red Cross arrived […] lipstick arrived […] I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips […] I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again […] That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”
It is time for women to reclaim the colour red.
The English language has created many phrases around the colour red. It is possible to be seeing red, to paint the town red, to be in the red, red-faced, caught red-handed, receive red-carpet treatment, be tricked by a red herring, tied up in red tape. Significant dates are marked as “red-letter days.” McCarthyism feared “the reds under the bed,” socialists that sing “we’ll keep the red flag flying.”
I see studies published in so-called “women’s magazines” claiming that men like women to wear red—that red is the most eye-catching colour, that it makes us more sexually attractive. I reject the idea that red makes women more desirable but I do like the idea that red works for every skin. White skin, black skin, brown skin and every shade in between suits red. As Anish Kapoor, celebrated international artist, stated in an interview: “Red is a colour I have felt very strongly about […] of course, it is the colour of the interior of our bodies.” Red is a fundamentally human colour, the very colour of our blood cells, and so it belongs to us all. Red wants everyone, red is a selfish, greedy and uncompromising lover—why else would the politics of the people be red?
Red is the colour of radical politics, of radical ideas, it is unapologetic – it is the colour of socialism, communism, but most importantly it is the colour of revolution.
Perhaps because they often command attention, I had a thing for wearing red dresses as a teenager, when attention was all I wanted. I wore a strapless, floor length, crimson dress with a glossy sheen to my prom aged sixteen. I owned a red daytime dress around that period which I wore to death, in a simple skater style that mushroomed around my thighs and that I took to pairing with a bright yellow cardigan and black heels. Once I recall making the ill-informed decision to wear a white dress covered in a cherry print with bright vermillion tights and a cropped blue cardigan, to a retro-themed fundraising ball. When I look back on photographs from that night I cringe and my cheeks turn the very same shade as those tights. My favourite red dress, however, was a strappy scarlet number I purchased from New Look when I was eighteen and that I reluctantly retired to a charity shop at the age of twenty-three. I don’t think I ever managed to remain sober in that dress, which made me feel like some kind of pornographic incarnation of Little Red Riding Hood. It was short, cinched in at the waist with a bow around the back, and accented my cleavage. I can remember a thrill running through me when a boy I was mad for at university approached me from behind in a bar and greeted me by wrapping his hands around my hips, murmuring against my ear, “I like your dress.” My appetite for red dresses has never really diminished and I will always have a weakness for them. At my Master’s degree graduation, which took place in winter, and then again at a wedding reception the following year, I wore a red velvet dress with a sweetheart neckline. I currently own a cheerful red sundress which is perfect for holidays and festivals and which always garners compliments. I have a pair of shiny wet-look leggings in burgundy, advertised when I bought them online as “ox-blood red.”
Disclaimer: The power in choosing your own clothes only remains yours when your clothes are not regarded as shorthand for consent, in which case your power is immediately violated.
To me, red dresses will always be one of life’s luxuries and a real pleasure to wear.
Red is a Coca-Cola can, a fast food logo that shrieks: McDonald’s! Burger King! KFC! The colour of consumption: a Netflix binge; a flashy sports car; a loud SALE poster in a shop window; the outfit of Father Christmas, a capitalist icon. The colour of royalty: of self-indulgence and decadence. Red may be the colour of revolution but never forget the legend that it was also the colour of a ribbon encircling a surviving French aristocrat’s throat.
My teen years and student years were not only populated by red dresses but red drinks, and red is the colour that comes to mind when I think of those liquid years: vodka and cherryade; gin and cranberry juice; sangria; vivid jam-coloured cocktails; cheap red wine that soured on my tongue and stained my teeth, but which I drank anyway in an effort to seem more sophisticated than I was.
Red has flavour. It tastes like currants and chilli peppers and ketchup and beetroot and red velvet cake and Haribo love hearts and raw meat.
“[S]ins are like scarlet […] they are red like crimson,” claims the Book of Isaiah, and so accordingly, the Antichrist appears as a red monster in the Book of Revelation, mounted by the Whore of Babylon, who is dressed in scarlet. Satan is frequently depicted as either being or wearing red. Demons and devils and monsters come alive on Halloween and the nightclubs, those cesspits throbbing with music and drugs and bodies, are packed with people in costumes donning pitchforks and glittering horns, smeared with fake blood and gore.
The forbidden fruit that tempts Eve is most commonly depicted as a rosy red apple. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” the protagonist is punished and mutilated for succumbing to the temptation of a pair of red dancing shoes.
In the 1939 musical film The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland (playing Dorothy Gale) famously wore a pair of ruby-red slippers. In the original novel by L. Frank Baum, the shoes were silver, but the colour was changed to red to capitalise on the new technicolour film process of big-budget Hollywood films at the time. Dorothy clicked the heels of those ruby slippers and thought of home – in my home, the United Kingdom, red is not necessarily the colour of leftist politics but can be the colour of fevered nationalism. Red is a telephone box, a Royal Mail post box, a London bus, a Beefeater guarding Buckingham Palace, a red circle on a London underground sign, Scottish tartan, one of three colours that constitute the Union Jack, the dragon in the Welsh flag, the cross on the English flag, the controversial Ulster banner, an archaic poster reminding us of what we take for granted as the spirit of British patriotism—the ability to “keep calm and carry on.” But red is not a calm colour.
Red is a thirsty colour, a dusty desert, the valley of fire. It is sweat and sand and rock and cruelty under a blazing blood-soaked sky, an apocalyptic sunset. The end of the world could happen at the touch of a red button.
It was when I was in the American desert, surrounded by red rock in Sedona, Arizona, that a friend and I went to the Centre for the New Age to have aura readings. We did this mostly for fun but there was an unspoken element of longing for some kind of identification, in the same way someone who doesn’t take astrology seriously might still feel a pull towards the horoscopes section of a newspaper and want to catch a glimpse of something they recognise. For my part, my insides were aching for a man who had left me earlier in the year, a man I had been falling in love with. I think I was craving some kind of reassurance that things would be okay. I sat in a chair with my palms flat against a metal surface while my portrait was taken with a special camera, the technology of which we were reliably informed (without irony) had been developed by Soviet scientists in the eighties. When the photograph of my aura was developed, I had no idea what to expect, but felt an undeniably keen sense of familiarity when the film was peeled back to reveal that it was in fact one colour: a solid block of red.
You have a tendency to rush into romantic relationships, the aura reader told me. You’ve had your heart broken and now your heart chakra is blocked and you have become guarded. You tend to jump in and get ahead of yourself. It’s because of your intense nature. You need to audition people for longer. Wait a little longer before diving in.
In her work Bluets, a meditation on the colour blue, Nelson writes that:
[C]hildren pretty much prefer red hands-down […] the shift into liking cooler tones – such as blue – happens as they grow older […] It is tempting to derive some kind of maturity narrative here: eventually we sober up and grow out of our rash love of intensity (i.e. red); eventually we learn to love more subtle things with more subtlety.
While Nelson goes on to defend her personal love of the colour blue as something that “has never felt like a maturing, or a refinement,” it is difficult to deny that red is a colour of intensity. I am, and have always been, an emotionally intense person. In this respect, the aura reading told me nothing that I did not already know.
You are strong-willed and need to be in a relationship with someone equally headstrong, she continued. Any less and you will get bored. Any more and you will feel oppressed, and you will run away. You need to be with someone who can keep up with you, someone just as independent but who values your independence as well.
One of my best friends often playfully tells me that I have what she perceives to be a “feminine aura.” She has described this as being coded in my body language and in my magnetism towards conventionally feminine markers in my appearance; she says it is in my voice, in my laugh. What the aura reader emphasised, however, is the old adage that red is a masculine colour. “It’s a masculine energy,” she explained. “You are an alpha female” (she wrote the phrase ‘alpha female’ in the margins of my aura portrait, next to a doodle of a heart). “Your partner should be another alpha. You should wear moonstone to balance this energy. Moonstone is for femininity,” she added. I held up my right hand. I was already wearing a moonstone ring.
Red stains, it dominates, it flashes, it cloaks, it commands our attention. It is blood, it is sex, it is violence, it is life, and it will not be ignored.
In a world where women are constantly told to erase themselves, to shrink themselves, and to occupy less space, red refuses to do so. This should not be the preserve of the masculine, and by extension broadly considered to be the preserve of men. Resilience and defiance are not inherently masculine traits. It is time for women to reclaim the colour red.
- Gonin DSO, Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett. Diary entry dated 23/05/1945. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.
- The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.
- Nelson, Maggie. The Red Parts. London: Vintage, 2015.
- VICE: Acid Attacks short documentary. VICE. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.
Katie Scott-Marshall is a writer and communications professional living and working in London. She has an MA with Distinction from Newcastle University in Modern and Contemporary Literature. Her writing features in the print anthology The Bi-ble: New Testimonials from independent publisher Monstrous Regiment, in an upcoming print anthology for Edinburgh University’s Dangerous Women project, and online with Verbal Remedy and Bright Lights Film Journal. Katie can be found on Twitter @katie_scottmars, and on Instagram @katie_
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.