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.

22 thoughts on “red dress blue dress”

  1. I love colour’s power to transform, and red is one of my favorites. Actually, if I had it my way, I wouldn’t even have a LBD, just a bunch of rainbow hued dresses.

  2. That analysis of colour makes Aurora’s shifting blue/pink dress a little more interesting in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. 😉

  3. Love this article. Like it or not color communicates even on the subconscious level.

    This makes me want to experiment. Reverse the image with the corresponding color. Mary in Red, Magdalene in blue etc.

    Color alone doesn’t define me, wouldn’t change who I am fundamentally. But what would be said for other people’s perceptions. Hmmmm.

  4. Thanks everyone for commenting =)

    Dana, the Virgin Mary was depicted in many colours in Medieval times, especially black, red and gold. Blue was both a technological and a perceptual innovation that developed in the Renaissance.

    Previously on blue stockings:

    I was in the City today, and watched the people at Liverpool Station. Blue was ubiquitous, and especially visible in clusters of bankers.

  5. I love this article so much! Very amazing to see all the different examples so far back in history, and it really makes me think about what people around me wear!

  6. Fascinating–I have a red dress, but not a blue! I read this thinking of the colors associated with political parties in the US: blue, Democrats; red, Republican. I’m going to pay more attention to the way this use of colors may play out in the upcoming election process.

  7. Hi Terri, I had forgotten it was that Democrats are blue and Republicans are red in America.

    In the UK and Canada, the Conservatives are blue and the Liberals are red.

    I wonder why that is?

  8. I vaguely recall there was a CBC Big Idea podcast from a few years back that claimed because the ultramarine pigment used to be so precious, artists would only reserve it to paint the Virgin Mary’s robe. I always thought it was a lovely story; never got around to find out how much of it is true.

    I saw that Mary Magdalene painting by Caravaggio in Ottawa last summer. I was rendered speechless…

  9. Blue was also seen as the colour for girls at the beginning of the 20th century – I think that also explains why Alice and Dorothy are dressed in blue. Pink was for boys (a milder version of red, considered a strong male colour at the time).

  10. On red and blue in current USA politics:
    On election night, television stations shade each state as results finalize.
    Since the flag is red, white and blue, red and blue are used.
    Eventually, and after the fall of Communism, the big Red, politicians and editorial writers began using the colors.
    States are called red if they vote Republican, blue for Democrats and purple for swing states that can either change on a presidential election or will elect one party to Washington, but another as governor, or any other split.

    We ignore the Green Party for the most part.

    I’m a redhead, and I have a little green dress!

  11. The classic Minnie mouse actually wears a blue skirt with a little red hat, not a red dress. But more commonly today she wears red or pink with polka dots. Love this none the less.

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