Lady in Red…Maybe?

With Valentine’s Day approaching, pink and red in particular, are beginning to inundate the consumer landscape. But why red? Why do we associate the color red with the romance of Valentine’s Day? Researchers such as S. Craig Roberts et al. from the University of Liverpool discuss several findings which may help explain this association. For example, red is associated with success in both individual competition and team sports. This is more than likely due to our psychological association of the color red with dominance and aggression. Likewise, Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta studied the influence of the color red within romantic situations. They hypothesized that red was an aphrodisiac for men when viewing women due to it carrying the message of sex and romance. They began to refer to this phenomenon as the red-sex link. Elliot and Niesta explain the historic societal conditioning that people have gone through to develop this red-sex link.

Red often appears as a symbol of passion, lust, and fertility in ancient mythology and folklore (Barua, 1962; Erdoes & Ortiz, 1984; Hupka, Zaleski, Otto, Reidl, & Tarabrina, 1997; Hutchings, 2004; Jobes, 1962). In literature, red has repeatedly been associated with female sexuality, especially illicit sexuality, most famously in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work The Scarlet Letter. Likewise, in popular stage and film, there are many instances in which red clothing, especially a red dress, has been used to represent passion or sexuality (e.g., A Streetcar Named Desire, Dial M for Murder, and Jezebel; Greenfield, 2005). Red is paired with hearts on Valentine’s Day to symbolize romantic affection and is a highly popular color for women’s lingerie. Red has been used for centuries to signal sexual availability or “open for business” in red-light districts. Women commonly use red lipstick and rouge to heighten their attractiveness, a practice that has been in place at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians (10,000 BCE; Regas & Kozlowski, 1998).

 In Elliot and Niesta’s experiment they found the following: men who viewed a woman on a red, relative to a white, background perceived her to be more attractive; women, however, did not perceive a difference in attractiveness of other women regardless of background color. They also found that men were more likely to ask a woman dressed in red on a date and would spend more money on her than a women dressed in blue, for instance. It is important to note, however, that men’s perceptions of women’s overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence were not influenced by the color red. In terms of real world applications, Elliot and Niesta write the following:

The practical implications of our findings are striking in the extent of their reach. That red is an aphrodisiac for men is not only valuable information for both men and women in the mating game, but should also prove of considerable interest to fashion and image consultants, product designers, and marketers and advertisers, among (many) others.

 So what does this mean for you? In short, go ahead and wear that little red ensemble for Valentine’s Day. If you’re a woman, the man in your life will appreciate it and if you don’t have a special guy it may help you attract one. Just be sure you understand the underlying expectations! Happy Valentine’s Day from the Ohio State Historic Costume & Textiles Collection.

 Marlise Schoeny


Roberts S, Owen R, Havlicek J. Distinguishing Between Perceiver and Wearer Effects in Clothing Color- Associated Attributions. Evolutionary Psychology [serial online]. July 2010;8(3):350-364. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 10, 2015.