Work It, Ladies

Scarlet Is the New Black

From Anna Wintour to Rita Ora to Claire Danes, stars are strutting their stuff in red this season. And the "look at me" color of confidence, sex, and attitude is likely here to stay.

Dan MacMedan/WireImage

It’s official: Red is the color of the season.

The fiery hue has been everywhere lately, from the U.S. Open, where Vogue editrix Anna Wintour turned heads in a saucy scarlet shift, to the VMAs and Emmy Awards earlier this week, where Rita Ora (in a va-va-voom slit-up-to-there slip dress), Claire Danes (in an intriguing Givenchy lace number) and Lena Dunham (in a frilly pink-and-rose cupcake-like confection) all sported shades of rouge. And it’s only going to get hotter come fashion week.

PHOTOS: Ladies in Red: Celebs in the Summer's Hottest Color

“We’ve had several seasons of dark, heavy, almost Victorian looks,” says Nathalie Atkinson, a style columnist at Canada’s The Globe & Mail. “But the fall collections in stores now are bleeding rivers of red.” Searing crimson dresses and statement bags at cool New York-based label Rag & Bone, ‘60s op-art fantasias at Valentino, crimson-colored Red Riding Hood capes at Dolce & Gabbana. And you can expect that trend to continue through the 2015 Spring and Summer Collections kicking off next week in New York. “Red is really hard to do cheaply, so [high-end] designers love it,” Atkinson says.

But red’s prominence goes beyond pure fashion. Indeed, there’s a particular boldness and defiance about it that makes it seem so vital, so resonant today. In an era of shortened attention spans, ever-growing distractions, political ambivalence, and economic uncertainty, red makes a declarative statement. It’s confident, assured, it’s in-your-face, and it makes people put their damned phone down and pay attention to you.

“It’s definitely a ‘Hey, look at me color,’ “ says David Zyla, an Emmy-award costume designer and author of Color Your Style: How to Wear Your True Colors. “It reveals your passion, your sexuality, your energy. It’s a force to be reckoned with. You can’t ignore someone in red.”

Indeed, red — because of its vibrancy and richness — has served as a powerful symbol since the beginning of civilization. The color of blood, fire, and the heart, it’s no wonder red is so often associated with sex and violence. The Ancient Greeks and Romans carried ruby flags into battle. Mars, the Red Planet, is named after the sun god. In the Old Testament, red is the color of the flaming fires of hell, of the devil, and of the apple that Eve bites into, introducing sin into the world.

And on the sex side, there’s the Bible’s “Scarlet Woman and The Scarlet Letter and the term “Red Light District,” making this color so tantalizing, taboo. “Red is,” says Zyla, “the sexiest possible thing we can wear.”

It’s also one of the most assertive and powerful colors, worn by emperors, revolutionaries, and the papacy. One of the reasons for this is because of its expense — only the very wealthy could afford, or were allowed, to wear red. In China, red dye was so rare that it was rumored to be made of dragon’s blood. In Germany and France, only royalty could wear it. In 17th century France, a red-heeled shoe signified the apex of one’s influence and power, thanks to Louis XIV. And nowadays, politicians and CEOs frequently employ the color to command respect and intimidate. (Think Michael Douglas’s red-suspender-clad Wall Street trader, or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with her perfect, ruthless ruby skirt suits.)

“Red, because it’s so visual, has the power to move others to do what you want them to do,” says Zayla. “Whether that’s ‘notice me,’ ‘fall in love with me,’ or ‘give me a promotion.’ It is impossible to ignore.”

That sort of blunt force is what makes red so right at the moment, particularly for women. After years of hiding behind drab neutrals and basic black — and being passed over for promotions, receiving less pay and less respect than their male co-workers, being mansplained to, and (possibly worst of all) being ignored — women, says Atkinson, “want to be more emphatic about who they are.”

And you can expect designers and retailers to cater to them too. Whether it’s through skinny ruby sashes and scarves (wielded like a man’s tie, a la IMF Chief Christine Lagarde), or more monochrome head-to-toe looks, red is here to stay for a while. (And lest the men feel left out, Zayla says the red power tie is poised for a comeback too. Lucky you.)

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For those on the more conservative side, Atkinson recommends trying a classic red lipstick. But proceed with caution: “You can’t be a wallflower when wearing red,” she says.