Inspired by the slinky red number Kate Bosworth wears so well in our debut Christmas film, us Topshop HQ girls were after a fashion insider to shed some light on the iconic red dress in fashion history. And who better to wax lyrical than founder of the achingly-hip vintage boutique Decades and author of the namesake fashion history tome, Cameron Silver. The leading expert on all things vintage fashion – and contemporary fashion we reckon – took some time out from his busy schedule to talk iconic red dresses just for the Inside-Out blog.
A red evening gown is certain to get a woman noticed. It is both affective and effective; Chris de Burgh even wrote a song about it! In 1982, my mother collaborated with a designer to make her version of the “Lady in Red” wearing a chiffon off the shoulder ruffle gown that was inspired by a dress worn by the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She was the belle of the ball or at least my Bar Mitzvah. Red is a color that flatters every skin type from the palest alabaster to the darkest chocolate. In many Asian cultures brides get married in red wedding dresses since the color symbolizes joy and luck. Perhaps that is one of the allures of a red dress: quite simply, you get lucky in red.
At the 2012 Academy Awards, a new generation of stars fell in love with red on the red carpet: Michelle Williams in Louis Vuitton, Emma Stone in Giambattista Valli, and Natalie Portman in vintage Christian Dior. Red has made a big comeback, but I have always bought vintage red dresses at Decades.
Some of my favorites are by Valentino who famously made the color his signature. However, Hollywood has long recognized the power and allure of red. Think of Vivien Leigh in her scarlet Walter Plunkett design from Gone with the Wind in 1939. Travis Beaton famously outfitted Rita Hayworth in red in the 1940s. The 1950s were all about red from Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in matching beaded ruby Travilla’s in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds to Elizabeth Taylor ultra-sultry in a red cocktail dress with a white fox fling (Lindsay Lohan recently recreated the shot for the Lifetime movie Liz & Dick this year). Audrey Hepburn swept down the stairs in red Givenchy chiffon for Funny Face (1957). When Jacqueline Kennedy gave her famous televised White House tour in 1962, she wore red. I’ve seen my share of 1970s claret gowns from Ossie Clark at the beginning of the decade to Halston’s goddess gowns wore to Studio 54. In the 1980s, Tina Turner triumphantly returned to the spotlight donning a red leather mini that showcased her legendary gams.
Truly, a red dress can steal the show. Michelle Pfeiffer famously slithers on a piano singing “Makin’ Whoopee” while simultaneously seducing The Fabulous Baker Boys and the audience in a red silk velvet dress that was hand sewn onto Pfeiffer’s enviable bod by costume designer Lisa Jensen in this 1989 classic. Every review mentioned the dress and it turned Pfeiffer into an overnight screen siren. Was it the Old-Hollywood halter neckline held up by antique fastener that Jeff Bridges unhooks or the ruching along the hips; combined with a stellar performance that earned Pfeiffer her second Oscar nom?
It is all of the above and then some plus a dash of moxie as this dress remains as unforgettable as the performance. Kate Bosworth recreates the magic of Pfeiffer’s fashion feat in a rich cranberry glistening long sleeve gown atop a highly lacquered black piano singing “Winter Wonderland.” I love a long sleeve dress especially when Bosworth turns dramatically revealing an open back. Color and drama – it’s the voodoo of a red dress.
But what is the ultimate red dress? Call me corny, but I have to say Kelly LeBrock in the famous and rather flimsy red chiffon dress with matching panties from the comedy The Woman in Red in 1984 sums up the passion we feel for red. Gene Wilder is simply spellbound when LeBrock passes him as she walks over a grate and in homage to Marilyn Monroe, a gush of wind swoops her dress over her head and Wilder becomes obsessed. A red gown is not for the faint of heart. It is for the woman who wants to be noticed, remembered, and as evidenced by Chinese, Indian, and Korean weddings, to get lucky.
Wear red at your own risk. It will cause heads to turns and hearts to skip a beat. It inspired a movie and a song. I can’t guarantee you will win an Oscar in red, have a song written about you, or be immortalized in celluloid, but I will promise you this: I always notice the lady in red.
For more of Cameron’s biting prose and historical fashion savvy get your hands on his tome dedicated to fashion through the ages, Decades: A Century of Fashion – we’re adding it to our Christmas wishlists now!