Why Red is the Colour of Now

Have we all been Trumped? How Republican red is making its mark

Red on the runway at Max Mara for Fall 2017. Picture / Supplied

Conspiracy theories are never a good look, but the outbreak of red is beginning to feel like more than a coincidence.

After years of navy, grey, with occasional forays into pastel pink and baby blue, red is everywhere. It’s in stores, with more on the catwalks for next season: in New York, in Milan (Prada, Alberta Ferretti and Fendi, where the models wore thigh-high red boots), in London, where Simone Rocha pierced her inky blackness with fiery floral comets and Roksanda based her entire collection on Rothko’s melting reds, russets and pinks.

“It feels really powerful,” says Roksanda. “And I think right now it’s important for women to assert their strength.”

That sentiment - along with covert and explicit expressions of disgust at the latest tweet from @realDonaldTrump - was repeated over and over when I asked designers about their new interest in red. You can roll your eyes at fashion’s belated and, depending on your view, futile political activism, but I haven’t heard designers this engaged ever.

The irony, which won’t be lost on anyone, is that red in the US is as Republican, as it comes. Why else would Theresa May have sacrificed Tory blue in favour of Labour red when she visited the new president last month? As for that recent picture of Melania with her husband in Florida wearing his-and-hers red, it could hardly be more Trumpian in its florid display of might and affluence.

But in Catholicism, red used to be associated with martyrdom. At her execution, Mary Queen of Scots, according to some reports, removed her sombre black cloak at the last moment to reveal a scarlet dress. Is Melania trying to tell us something?

One thing we know is that, as Samantha Cameron says, “red always looks good in photographs”. It doesn’t require any additional embellishment, handy if you want to make an impact without attracting criticism for extravagance. 

For retailers, it’s the equivalent of click-bait. You may end up buying the black version, but it’s the crimson that draws you in - it always looks so inviting. “Every time we put it in the window we get a very positive reaction from customers,” says Goat’s Jane Lewis.

“There isn’t a silhouette I wouldn’t cut in red,” says Osman. “It’s become one of our best-selling colours.”

While Valentino long ago claimed a pure, clear red as its own, until recently, brazen red statements from labels that consider themselves in the vanguard, were few and far between, possibly because apart from a brief period in the late 1980s, when Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo declared that “red is the new black”, it was regarded as a direct route to cheesy glamour.

This isn’t a new prejudice. Goethe, in 1810, wrote that “savage nations, uneducated and children have a great predilection for primary colours.” Purists have been sniffy about bright colours since at least the Reformation. Yet might the disdain have been rooted in envy? According to Kassia St Clair, author of The Secret Lives of Colour, “an account book from the reign of King Henry Vl, who ruled England during the 15th century, shows that it took a master mason a month to earn enough to buy a yard of the cheapest scarlet cloth."

Strong, predatory, angry, attention-seeking and highly sexual - it’s hard to avoid the red cliches, which is perhaps why Nicola Schlesinger, a (fashion-literate) psychotherapist, says she probably wouldn’t wear red to work. “It’s a bit too confrontational, or at the least distracting.” She does, however, have a new favourite dark red scarf. “As I get older, it’s just a lot more flattering than my beloved black. There’s still something that feels daring and optimistic about wearing red,” says Schlesinger, who found herself buying a red sheepskin coat this winter. “It’s a stand up and be counted colour. It taps into a lot of contradictory emotions.”

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In pragmatic terms, wearing red isn’t straightforward. Many designers these past weeks told me theirs is the perfect shade that suits everyone. Max Mara’s is a cherry. “It’s the one colour that people who don’t wear colour wear,” says Ian Griffiths, its creative director. “And it really makes neutrals like camel and grey pop.”

Sam Cam’s is an orangey-shade, “that works on all skins and with so many other colours. I wouldn’t necessarily put it with black, which looks two obvious, but it’s great with khaki.” In colour science terms - a field arguably introduced by Isaac Newton’s introduction of the colour wheel - she’s spot on. Khaki is on the opposite side to red, so while it’s a far less predictable contrast than black or navy, it works as an accent.

For most people, red is one of the first colours the eye identifies. However colour expert Nikki Bogardus is sceptical that any red can work for everyone. “It’s a really hard colour to pull off,” she says. “Anyone with light colouring (apparently that includes mousey olives like me) should stick with delicate pastels. Red’s just too overpowering.”

It undeniably looks good with dark hair (the Duchess of Cambridge is a fan and red is considered lucky in Asia). Looking at a lot of the reds around, I tell Bogardus I feel deprived. Besides, I say, I’ve been complimented when I’ve worn red. “But was it you or the dress they admired?” she responds. “If you must, then wear it as a detail. Knock it back with gentler shades and avoid loud contrasts.”

Designers are all about contrasts and loud, edgy statements. Victoria Beckham recently wore it with sky blue. Osman likes red with orange, blush pink and mint. “Off-kilter mixes look more modern than standard red and black,” he says. Could red be the new colour of enfranchisement? When Max Mara, that holy shrine of all things camel and muted, opens its show with a section of red-on-red outfits as it did on Thursday, you know there’s more to this than a searing retina experience.

- The Daily Telegraph

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