THE AL SMITH DINNER, a white-tie fundraiser for Catholic charities, has been an annual ritual in American politics for 72 years. For the first time last year, a woman, the actress Patricia Heaton, presided over the ceremonies. She wore what she described as a “cardinal red” dress. In the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, red is reserved for the upper echelons: cardinals, whose distinctive vestments gave that shade its name, and the pope. Was Ms. Heaton suggesting it was high time women were allowed into this exclusively male preserve?
She was certainly on trend: Scarlet, vermilion and burgundy burned brightly in the last few seasons of designer collections. The red dress is claiming the spotlight, in iterations from romantic (Giambattista Valli, Valentino) to modern (Stella McCartney, Sonia Rykiel) to sporty (Miu Miu). In interior design, the bright shade has reassumed its role as a key accent. “Baby pink is out, and red is back in where it belongs,” said Dallas interior designer Michelle Nussbaumer.
To understand why red rules requires unpacking its cultural significance. In language, it conveys heightened emotion: We see red when we’re angry, raise a red flag when alarmed, roll out the red carpet when extending a particularly warm welcome, and have a red-letter day when things go splendidly. Red is not a color to be ignored.
“Red is powerful but also pure,” said Laura Vassar, the co-designer of Brock Collection, who, with Kristopher Brock, recently conjured up lipstick-red dresses in crisp cotton taffeta. “The silhouette is sweet,” said Ms. Vassar, “but the color makes it feel sexy.”
Cheery’s On Top
- 1. ’The Red Studio’ by Henri Matisse (1911), $18 for a 14” x 11” print, art.com
- 2. Earrings, $345, rebeccaderavenel.com
- 3. Richard Ginori Plates, $110 each, Barneys New York, 888-222-7639
- 4. ‘Ruby’ by Joanna Hardy, $125, thamesandhudsonusa.com
- 5. Dress, $995, Burberry, 212-407-7100
- 6. Necklace, $1,995, foundrae.com
- 7. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ served as inspiration for design collective Vaquera’s show, pictured at top.
- 8. ‘Written in Blood’ Lipstick, $24, ritueldefille.com
- 9. Coat, $2,890, Sportmax, 212-674-1817
- 10. Boots, $778, trade-mark.com
- 11. Laulhère & Fivestory Beret, $130, fivestoryny.com
- 12. BIDKhome Hourglass, $66, wayfair.com
- 13. Atlantique Ascoli Top, $845, neimanmarcus.com
The hue has long been associated with prestige, in part because red dyes were so expensive. Spain’s control of the trade in cochineal, a crimson dye the Aztecs extracted from insects, helped make the country a world power during the Renaissance.
Cosmetics lines such as the Los Angeles-based Rituel de Fille still prize carmine, as cochineal is also known, for its rich intensity. After co-founder Katherine Ramos rejected synthetic dyes (“they looked like melted popsicles”), she used carmine to create a fiery shade that complements a range of skin-tones, from porcelain to tawny to dark. The Fenty Beauty by Rihanna line also offers a multi-skin-tone-flattering red in its Stunna Lip Paint.
Clearly attention-getters, crimson clothes were often selected for portraiture to emphasize the sitter’s importance, said Dr. Valerie Steele, author of “The Red Dress” and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. As a young princess, for example, Elizabeth I was painted in a red dress. Yet, for all its links to establishment rule, the color is also associated with the red flags of socialism and an upstart political radicalism that goes back to the French Revolution. Donning a red dress might not be the same as staging a coup, but it does send a signal that the wearer intends to be heard.
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