Seeing Red

If you watched the last episode of Mad Men this season, you may or may not have noticed a trend towards the use of the colour red strategically throughout the episode.  An article on Slate works on the theory that the red, used at some point to costume each of the female leads, represents female power, as Joan, Peggy and Megan all wear red as they move on to achieve goals or more important roles in their respective careers.

Studies show, however, that the colour red works in a very specific way on men (but not women) to make them amorous. To men, red is the colour of love (which might explain the marketing machine that is red roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on Valentine’s Day). Photos of women wearing red, as opposed to other colours, were thought by men in the study to be more attractive.

In the restaurant industry, female servers who wore red got better tips from male customers. There was no difference with female customers.

The initial study took place in 2008, and the restaurant study earlier this year. But the phenomenon likely started long ago.

Because of early dyes and textile manufacturing, red was difficult to produce, meaning that only the wealthy (or important) wore red. This message was diluted in the 20th century with the advent of synthetics, but for centuries, red was about power (and occasionally about sexual attractiveness). Who can forget the image of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind showing up at the party at Ashley and Melanie’s in that red velvet dress? Red dresses were for whores, harlots and devil women. It took (and takes) a lot of personal strength and courage to wear red, which is why it’s become a symbol for the American Heart Association and their Go Red campaign which encourages women to don a red dress to spread awareness of heart disease and stroke in women.

The study about amorous men particularly interests me, however, because I wonder how long the connection has been subliminal. Do men realize they are attracted to the colour red? Do they buy more red items when shopping for their female partners?

And do men who create “sexy” art for other men use the colour red consciously?

This thought came about because I recently redecorated the bathroom with 21 pin-up pictures by noted cheesecake artist Gil Elvgren. I’ve been a pin-up collector for years, I’ve even got a picture of Bettie Page tattooed on my leg, but I’d never really paid attention to the use of specific colours, either by Elvgren or his contemporaries. Elvgren reportedly used a palette of 32 colours, but in the majority of his pin-up work, there is at least some element that is the colour red. (He is also responsible for many of the mid 20th century advertising images for Coca-Cola, so he probably bought a lot of red paint regardless.)

Not counting red lipstick/mouths (which is a whole other kettle of fish), of the 21 images I chose for my bathroom re-do, only 3 have no use of the colour red at all. And one of those is pink. My criteria in choosing images from online sources was first that they be a high resolution for printing, then that they could be cropped appropriately to fit the frame size (some of Elvgren’s canvasses were almost square, making it difficult to crop without chopping off a foot or other visual element); only then did I select images based on colour, and my goal was to have a varied selection of clothing and background colours. Being a woman, I didn’t relate the use of red to those images/women being more attractive. Yet the colour red turns up more frequently than you’d figure – in a belt on a white dress, or in a bar of soap, or a pattern in a rug. Even, in many cases, as shadows.

Elvgren couldn’t have know about the psychological studies (he passed away in 1980), but his use of the colour red is easy to document; one need only do a Google search of his name and images to see how often red pops up as a bow, or a  belt, or a pair of cowboy boots or trim on a wagon wheel, if not as the full background colour or a sweater or dress. Given that his finished artwork seldom looked anything like the models who posed for it (he often changed outfits, haircolour and background details, and he was cinching waists and adding his trademark rosy cheeks to every model well before anyone had ever dreamed up photoshop or airbrushing), it’s reasonable to assume that Elvgren added the colours of various elements as a conscious decision. With 32 colours at his disposal his work should reflect those options more, but red shows up far more than any other colour (I could find few pieces that were blatantly purple, for instance, and only a few with any amount of green; orange only makes a showing as a contrast to red…).

Poring through books about the artist, there is nothing to indicate that his use of red was intentional, either as an element to appeal to male viewers or to suit his own philosophies of what constitutes ‘sexy” or attractive, but it’s certainly obvious. Elvgren’s fun, sexy paintings used a lot of red paint.

From a feminist point of view, I obviously don’t think women should all rush out and buy red clothes in order to be more appealing to men. But red is definitely a colour of power – whether it denotes wealth and importance or sexuality. Wearing red is definitely a statement, you must want – and be prepared – to be looked at, potentially in ways that may not be comfortable. On the other hand, for those who want the upper hand, whether it’s to gain better tips, or come across as strong and powerful, it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of killer red garments in your closet.

Hey! I wrote a book. Check out Stained Pages Press for more information on Kitchen Party – Food Stories From Nova Scotia and Beyond, due out in November.