A Love Letter to Red
When I think of red, one of the first images that comes to mind is a 1979 Horst P. Horst photograph of Diana Vreeland in her Park Avenue apartment. In it, the late and legendary Vogue fashion editor is splayed out across a red sofa with red needlepoint pillows in shimmering red loungewear, her nails and lips painted a shiny red, against the backdrop of wallpaper and curtains culled from reams of red chintz fabric festooned with Persian flowers. As the story goes, Vreeland told interior designer Billy Baldwin that she wanted the room to look like a garden, but in hell. And to achieve that, there is simply no other color that would do than red.
Vreeland loved the color because she understood its power. “Red is the great clarifier—bright cleansing, revealing,” she once said. “It makes all colors beautiful.” She was right. Consider the way it’s been relied on as a narrative tool on screen. In The Wizard of Oz, the film famous for its groundbreaking Technicolor, it was Dorothy’s slippers—originally silver in the L. Frank Baum book they were recast in sparkling ruby—that remain imprinted in our memory. In Belle De Jour, Severine’s (Catherine Deneuve) wardrobe, all of it courtesy of Yves Saint Laurent, stays in mostly neutral territory, except when we get a hint of her more subversive desires, via a double-breasted red suit and matching patent Roger Vivier pilgrim pumps. And in American Beauty, red acts as a harbinger too—the bathtub of rose petals, the sportscar, the blood—of both death and desire. Dirty Dancing’s red moment comes with a dress—Penny puts her Marilyn-style halteron Baby before her stage debut, an indication that she, despite her nickname, has matured. The red coat in 1973’s Don’t Look Now is a premonition of death, while in Schindler’s List it is that, but more too. Spielberg intentionally used the color, impossible to ignore in a film that was otherwise black and white to say just that about the Holocaust: though it was obvious, people at the time it was happening willfully ignored it.
Red is more vital, more impactful, just more, than any other color in the spectrum. Red was the shade of the French Revolution. It is The Scarlet Letter and Little Red Riding Hood. It is the flash of a matador’s cape and the glossy red apple in Snow White and the lacquered sole of a Louboutin. Just as it’s been used to dramatic effect over and over again on film, the same is true of art. So much so, that on Instagram there is an account devoted solely to chronicling women wearing red in paintings like Edgar Degas’s “Combing the Hair” (1896) or Hu Yongkai’s “Girl and Cat.” And there is of course the red lipstick, immortalized in art and film, beloved for centuries for its instant transformative power, it has often been a signature of those unafraid to speak their mind from Courteney Love to AOC to women in the suffrage movement at the turn of the century; Elizabeth Arden famously handed out tubes of her “Red Door Red,” designed as a symbol of strength, to those fighting for the right to vote.
Around this time of year, as Valentine’s Day creeps up on the calendar, we tend to see more red because of its inextricable link to love and lust. While white may be widely associated with weddings, red has actually been just as much of a signifier on one’s so-called “big day.” In Roman times red shawls were donned by brides as a symbol of love and in China red remains a wedding mainstay, omnipresent in the dress and décor, believed to bring good luck to the new couple. And scientists devoted to studying the psychological impact of color have confirmed red’s inherent power to both court attention and elicit feelings of arousal.
Red is passion yes, but it’s also fury. It’s pain and danger, rebellion and beauty, innocence and embarrassment. It is an omen, an invitation, a promise, an insinuation. It is what we put on when we want to show confidence, or feign it. It makes us giddy and it gets us in the mood. It is both life and death. It will never lose its relevance or revelatory nature because red is a language unto itself. It is, to put it simply, fundamental. I’ll never tire of it and, in her lifetime, neither did Vreeland. “I can’t imagine being bored with it,” she once said. Perhaps part of our collective fascination with it stems from the fact that it predates all other colors in our visual vocabulary. The first color we see as children? Red.