January 10, 2012
red dress blue dress
Every woman should have a red dress and a blue dress. When you put on a dress in one of these colours, you’re not just putting on a dress. You’re putting on centuries of cultural coding. You’re activating feminine archetypes. You’re signalling.
Red and blue have stories that should be told together – I highly recommend this book if you can find it in the library.
The Virgin Mary – as pictured by Da Vinci above, has been dressed consistently in blue for most of modernity. Her image is so ubiquitous, she is the reason why blue invokes virginity, purity, loyalty and nurturing. The Virgin Mary represents a real female who was chosen to play a supernatural role – and she’s not the only heroine who takes that path.
Mary Magdalene, on the right in a painting by Caravaggio, is traditionally depicted in red. Her story is complicated and confusing, and not much is known about her. Her account of the resurrection was mistrusted because she was a woman. A mysterious and mystical figure who was close to the saviour at the end of his life, she also carries associations with prostitution and carnality. In Christianity, blue is heavenly, and red is earthy.
Lewis Carroll’s character Alice is always pictured in blue – here in the Tim Burton incarnation. The colour is appropriate for a virginal character who is on a curious journey.
Another Tim Burton character from the movie Beetlejuice, Lydia, always dresses in black – except for the wedding scene. It’s an unholy, unwanted marriage. This scene in particular enthralled and terrified me as a child, and the dress is a vivid memory.
Another classic children’s story with a blue-clad heroine is Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. In a land of vivid colours (the original Baum books were full of tripped-out colour symbolism), Dorothy is a real girl lost in a fantasy world just like Alice. The similarity of their iconic dresses is pretty striking.
Nothing says “showgirl” like a red dress – and this slit-up-to-there example worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell to sing “Two Little Girls from Little Rock” in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is another indelible cinema memory of mine. This is a movie about best female friends, seeking money, love and adventure.
Thanks to Rachel, I got to see The Iron Lady yesterday (excellent film) and was fascinated with the very deliberate costuming. Streep’s Thatcher dresses in blue for the entire film – even glimpses into her closet show a rail full of various shades of blue. The only exception is when she loses the support of her party, she is dressed in red.
The screening we saw was put on by a group that promotes Conservative women running for office, and there was a very interesting, very capital-C panel afterwards with Thatcher’s biographer, a couple of male colleagues, and a female contemporary. The red/blue dichotomy was even visible on the panel, with the more moderate panelists wearing red dresses or ties and the more conservative panelists dressed in straight up blue.
… it reminded me of another conservative politician who very visibly adopted a red leather motorcycle jacket – Sarah Palin. Palin often wears red jackets – they suit her role as a ‘maverick’ rebel. (But with a charm bracelet, for real?) Ultimately, she has ended up being a polarizing figure who hasn’t been able to inspire – or demonstrate – loyalty.
The political connotations of these two colours are so prevalent, whether a politician wears one or the other is a significant signal.
True blue, on the other hand, is fecund with fidelity. Kate Middleton’s selection of a blue dress to announce her engagement probably wasn’t chosen simply because it compliments her natural colouring. Of all the blue dresses in the world, this was the one that dominated 2011.
Blue is a queenly colour – Marie Antoinette famously favoured it. In Coppola’s film version, the character of Du Barry the King’s mistress wore red by contrast. Another would-be queen who literally lent her name to a shade of blue? Wallis Simpson.
There are no fashion designers who have claimed the blue dress as their own – but red dresses belong to Valentino. Did you know that studies show that red dresses actually do draw more male attention? It might not be a cultural thing as much as a biological one. Red also creates banging brands, whether you’re Coca Cola or Valentino.
Walt Disney loved heroines in blue and his version of Cinderella is no exception. The fairy-godmother makeover comes complete with a classic blue princess gown to win over Prince Charming. Minnie Mouse, on the other hand, wears red.
“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” says Jessica Rabbit. It’s true – that painted-on red dress she wears makes it hard to picture her as a good girl, even if she is. When wearing red or blue, it is good to be aware of the messages these colours send, because if you’re mixing messages it is better to do it with intention.
If you’ve ever doubted the capacity of clothing to transform, just try on a red or blue dress and see what kind of heroine you can be. The best part is, we can have both in our closets.