Last year a distracting handful of women wore red at the State of the Union address; this year it has spread. And the women know not what they do.
Women wear red thinking it is a power color. They often say, “I’ve got a big meeting – or a big speech or a big negotiation. I need some power. I’ll wear red.”
Unfortunately, they do not realize that red is not a power color. It is a powerful color, but not a power color. There's a difference.
Red, especially pure, bright red, is high-energy. It accelerates the pulse, raises blood pressure and increases respiration rate. In other words, it has a strong impact.
So, what's not to like? Strong impact, high energy? Bring it on.
Alas, it is a two-edged sword. Red's high energy is also polarizing and, as such, is hard to control. It engages half of one's audience positively causing them to see you as energetic, confident and assertive. The other half sees you as overbearing, intimidating and not particularly approachable which, combined with the raised blood pressure, often makes them angry, even furious.
Unfortunately you are never sure which person will see menacing and which will see vibrant. As such it puts you in the position of needing to mollify part of your audience – without knowing which part – instead of setting forth your program or points. What a burden. What a roadblock. A roadblock I don’t need.
There are other problems with red. First, while red makes you more noticeable, it can also make you look heavier. Red increases the perceived size of whatever it encompasses. It also demands perfection. Since it draws attention, the red dress or suit you wear needs to be flawless. It will be given extra scrutiny.
Red also suggests "sale." Retailers know this which is why Target's target, Kmart’s K, Macy’s star and the H&M logo are all red. “Cheap” might not be the appropriate subliminal message to leave in an opponent’s mind.
Finally, red has unmistakable sexual overtones, for women a dangerous proposition. In Games Mother Never Taught You Betty Lehan Harrigan warned that sex used in business will trivialize and marginalize a woman. So, while this can be useful for doing business with certain people (girls, you know what I mean), it also could backfire. Watchword: beware.
Am I saying never wear red? Absolutely not. Jill Biden’s red was not a problem. She’s not an elected official. Accomplished as she is, she claimed her seat at the proceedings not as a politician - which would be a professional role - but as the wife of a politician – a social role. Red is appropriate to her social role in which she is not seeking power.
Similarly an artist in red (think Paloma Picasso) or a red polo shirt at a barbecue can be totally appropriate to the respective role and situation.
But lawmakers in red? That’s another matter. Congress is a high stakes, high profile environment where you need all the power you can lay your hands on. Otherwise you risk being seen as a lightweight and eaten alive. Ladies in red, take note.
But let's look at how men wear red in business. No red suits. Not even red shirts. (And if red were a power color, believe me, they would!) They do, however, tap into the dynamism and vibrancy of the color by using it in their ties. Just a small accent.
Besides wearing red in small amounts, there are other ways to control the color. Darker shades have more power; when red is darkened it becomes more subdued, more suitable for business. Maroon, port and burgundy - blue-based reds - are classic, refined, elegant and formal. Rust, a deep yellow-based deep red, is earthy, friendly and approachable.
The judicious use of red can be a powerful weapon in a woman’s arsenal. Just know what you’re doing. Do your research: know your message, know the environment and culture you’re navigating, know the effect you want to have, understand the strengths and the drawbacks of red. And for some of us, on some occasions, that red dress – or suit – might be absolute perfection.