Photographed by Alexandra R. Gavillet.
There’s a reason the title character in 1984’s The Woman in Red wasn’t wearing white, blue, or any other color — and why many of us ladies reach for that little red dress when we're in the mood to vamp it up. Research has shown that men are unconsciously but powerfully attracted to the color red, reading women who wear the color as more sexually desirable than others. People have leveraged this effect since long before it was corroborated by science: Women have been swiping on red lipstick, for example, for 10,000 years, since the practice began in ancient Mesopotamia. We’re now more likely to get crimson lips from a tube than from the crushed-insect formula favored by Cleopatra, but the age-old va-va-voom factor remains. (Research signals a possible evolutionary explanation for why males are drawn to red: Non-human female primates advertise that they’re ovulating by showing redness on their genitals and chests.)
Now, a new study shows that a woman in red isn’t only seen as desirable; she's also seen (by other women, at least) as a threat. Psychologists from the University of Rochester instructed 196 heterosexual women to look at a photo of a “moderately attractive” twenty-something woman. Half of the study participants viewed the woman in a white dress, while the other half viewed an identical photo, but with a red dress. The study participants were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with statements regarding the woman’s fidelity in relationships and interest in sex.
Women consistently perceived the photographed woman as more promiscuous and sexually available when she was in red. The results were replicated when researchers conducted a study of 143 Slovakian women who were asked to evaluate a photo of a woman wearing either a red or green shirt. Not only did the women in this experiment perceive the red-clad woman as more sexually receptive than her green-clad identical twin, they also “reported stronger intentions to guard their mate from the target” when she was in red — a finding based on their measured unwillingness to introduce the “target” to their own sexual partners.
While heterosexual women as a group may be likelier to “mate-guard” when faced with a red-clad woman, it goes without saying — though the researchers do point it out — that “not all women displaying red are actively advertising sexual availability.” When we wear red, maybe it’s because it looks great, because it makes us feel powerful and confident, or because it's the color of the first dress we grabbed from the heap of laundry on the floor.
We're getting a little tired of hearing how women “compete” among themselves for dudes. Knee-jerk reactions to questions asked in a lab don't necessarily translate into real-life behavior. And, while there appear to be evolutionary reasons for male sexual attraction to red, other factors — such as cultural connotations and conditioning (The Scarlet Letter, anyone?) — likely influence our perception of the color as well. Whatever red’s effect, we can all agree that actions (and words) speak louder than colors.