Now, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology has chosen the glorified shade as the subject of its latest exhibition, which runs until April 20.
“Red,” which opened on Valentine’s Day, features some 80 dresses from 65 of what it considers the most influential 20th-century designers, including Alexander McQueen, Bill Blass, Balenciaga, Rei Kawakubo, Chanel, Halston and Valentino. In addition to the designer dresses, a selection of antique clothing, shoes, accessories and textiles from as early as the 17th century is on display.
While the majority of the pieces were pulled from the museum’s 50,000-piece archive, some articles were borrowed from private collectors, museums and designers around the world, like Valentino, who sent seven from Rome.
“We could have done the exhibit eight times over with what we have in our archives,” said Valerie Steele, chief curator of the museum. “But we really wanted the best of the best, so we borrowed specific pieces. The little black dress had been done to death and the symbolism of red really caught my attention.”
During her research for the exhibit, which is sponsored by Target Stores, and her latest book, “The Red Dress,” which launched in the fall, Steele discovered that red prompts physiological and emotional responses.
“Red raises our blood pressure, quickens the pulse and increases respiration ever so slightly when you look at it,” she contended.
In addition to the opening-night party on Valentine’s Day, where guests sipped red wine in their finest of red garb, the museum hosted a discussion at FIT on Feb. 20 to further explore the symbolism and significance of the color.
There, professor Margaret Miele, who teaches the “Psychology of Color” at FIT, said the brain processes red separately from other visual information.
“The cortex acknowledges the color red, as well,” Miele said. “So red is processed in two areas of the brain. And in your eyes, red is focused in the back, rather than with other colors in the fovea, in the front of the eye.”
Miele also cited red as the color babies respond to first, the most popular color in national flags around the world and the second favorite color among the U.S. population after blue. “But it’s gaining in popularity,” she said.
At the discussion, Steele noted the significance of red in animal behavior and how it is often associated with anger and aggression. She said octopuses turn a reddish color when aggravated and cited studies where male robins shredded small red pillows placed in their nests.
Historically, red clothing was a symbol of the upper class, since red dye was expensive to produce. One of the earliest pieces in the exhibit, a red pair of men’s high-heeled shoes from the 17th century, was a symbol of aristocracy. A red riding hood and men’s silk suit in garnet red both date to the 18th century.
Other highlights at the exhibit include a dress of ruby-red paillettes with attached headpiece from Alexander McQueen, a beaded Adrian sheath dress that Joan Crawford wore in the 1937 film “The Bride Wore Red,” a Valentino dress covered in red tulle roses from 1959 and a French corset from the 1880s.
Dresses from Rei Kawakubo’s 1991 collection for Comme des Garcons are also on view. The designer, who has said she designs in eight shades of black, abruptly declared “red is black” in 1989.