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Kelly Gonsalves
January 17, 2019 11:32 am

So you’ve got a key presentation today in front of an important client or your boss, or perhaps you’re heading out for a high-stakes interview for the job of your dreams. What do you walk out the door wearing for your big day? Common wisdom holds red to be something of a power color in professional settings. (You’ve probably heard an older man call a red tie their “power tie” at least once in your life.) Among the sea of blacks and neutrals common in most formal business settings, bright red does seem to be a good way to grab attention—but not all attention is good attention. So is red really a power color?

We dug through the science and long social history and consulted two stylists who work with professionals on their wardrobes to get to the bottom of the cultural myth about the power of red. The TL;DR: red can impress and make a statement at work, but it very much depends on the context, audience, and message you’re trying to send.

Red puts all eyes on you.

Perhaps more than any other color, red carries a surprising multitude of meanings. Just consider the metaphors alone: red carpets, red flags, red herrings, being caught red-handed, scarlet letters, scarlet women, lady in red—the list goes on and on. But although the meanings of these phrases vary pretty significantly, most of them have one core component: visibility.

“In a lot of ways, red to me is attention—whether that means a negative or positive way of thinking,” Nyjerah Cunningham, a VIP stylist at professional women’s clothing company MM.LaFleur, tells HelloGiggles. “Red is what you wear when you want to make a statement. It’s just that idea of feeling bold.”

We can look to nature for a bit of explanation. Most occurrences of the color red in nature serve as important messages for humans and animals: the red glow of a fire brings us toward needed warmth and light; the deep red of blood signals injury or physical danger; the sun’s setting tells us night is coming; and the red of certain fruits stands out among the greenery, leading us to sustenance. Because of the critical importance of all these red-related messages in the natural world, some scientists believe we’ve simply evolved to be more alert to the color or have a leftover instinct from our earliest ancestors to pay particular attention to it.

If your goal is to dominate a room and attract more eyes to you—for example, if you’re trying to stand out among a crowd of candidates or project importance at a conference—red could be a powerful color for you to wear.

“When you think about all the things in life that are the color red, like a stop sign, fire, it sends a message to be alert,” Cunningham says. “It’s instilled in our minds that the color red holds some sort of authority. It’s like a warning and signals us to take caution, which basically we follow all the time, so in a way it does hold a lot of power.”

Red is a status symbol.

Our instinct to view red as a power color also has deep historical roots. Many cultures around the world have long viewed red as a high-status color. According to design historian Dr. Maude Bass-Krueger, ancient Chinese empires saw red as a royal color, reportedly per some fortunetellers’ suggestion. To them, it represented the fire element, which in Chinese philosophy was associated with things like leadership, confidence, and dynamism. Centuries later, the Catholic Church embraced red as a symbol of Christ’s blood, and it was worn by cardinals and even kings who wished to emphasize their “God-given right to rule,” Dr. Bass-Krueger notes. In England, several monarchs reportedly forbade commoners from wearing the color red, punishable by law, and considering how expensive red dye was at the time, red clothing became generally associated with the wealthy, upper-echelon folks and royalty.

Some primate species—our evolutionary predecessors—also use the color red to signal status. Among mandrill monkeys, the fittest and most dominant of the pack has the reddest face, which tells the weaker guys to stand down and avoid messing with him.

Today there still seems to be some evidence of this power effect: One study found soccer players perceive opponents wearing red to be more competent, better players. And weirdly enough, several sports studies have found teams and competitors who wear red do tend to win more—seriously! One analysis found red’s winning effect across almost 60 years of football history, and another found that athletes who wore red at the 2004 Olympics won 55% of all competitions.

Red makes you seem aggressive.

Okay, now here’s where things get tricky. One possible explanation of the winning effect of red in sports is the color’s connection to aggression, says professional stylist and brand image strategist Toi Sweeney. Red can make you appear larger and fiercer, she explains, so it’s possible that facing opponents wearing red simply makes you feel a little more intimidated. A 2015 study indeed found people perceive men wearing red as angrier and more aggressive, and some research shows that the amygdala—the part of the brain associated with fear, anger, and other emotional responses—lights up in response to seeing something red.

“In general, red means danger. It means you should avoid it. That’s why the context of it is so, so very important,” Sweeney says.

Wearing red in a work environment can be great if you’re trying scare off a rival or just need to be perceived more aggressively—for example, a lawyer who spends a lot of time in a courtroom—but it may not be appropriate in every work situation.

“If you’re giving a presentation, and you really, really have this huge meeting, you’re going to be pitching your product for the first time, you need to deliver something that’s very powerful—that’s when you wear red,” Sweeney says. “If you’re speaking in the children’s hospital, and you want to get people to donate, then you want to wear blue because that’s the color that signifies trust, as opposed to red. That could appear aggressive.”

Again, nature can give us some clues as to why we make this association: Among animals, particularly primates, more redness in the face can signal anger, aggression, or a rush of adrenaline. Other animals thus see red as a sign to stay away. We humans aren’t so different ourselves, of course; our faces also flush up when we’re angry (think of the metaphor “seeing red”) as well as when we’re embarrassed or aroused.

Red makes you sexier.

Speaking of arousal, let’s not forget red’s other key association: all things love and sex. Red symbolizes fertility (see: The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the color of our primate friends’ sexual parts during mating season). Studies have shown men find women wearing red to be more attractive, desirable, and even sexually available, and women are also more attracted to men in red.

Whether all this is a good thing in a work setting is wholly debatable. Being attractive generally yields some pretty significant economic benefits, including being more likely to be considered for jobs, having better chances of getting promoted, and earning more money than colleagues. One 2012 study even found men tipped waitresses wearing red about 15 to 26% more than their more plainly dressed peers because they were perceived as more attractive.

At the same time, women in particular already struggle to be taken seriously at their jobs and often work in environments that suffer from a lack of female representation in general, so drawing more attention to their appearance can sometimes distract from their actual talents.

“A lot of times I get women in the showroom that are very, very aware of how they want to be perceived in a workplace when it comes to men,” Cunningham says. “A lot of our professional women work in a very male-dominated industry, so if you wear a very form-fitting silhouette that hugs your body and hugs your curves all in the right places, it wouldn’t be the best time or the best situation for that garment to be in red because red already has that very sexual attachment to it.”

That doesn’t mean that red is always perceived as a seductive color in the workplace, however. The garment’s silhouette—shapeless and shifting vs. more fitted—as well as the shade of red can minimize some of that “sexy” factor and create a more balanced look.

“I believe that professional women may have a hard time reaching for that very fiery red dress because they don’t want to draw the wrong attention, so that’s why I like to advise my clients to wear it as an accent,” Cunningham adds.

Women perceive red more negatively.

It should be noted that some of the most likely people to judge women for their “sexy” red dresses are other women, according to research. A 2014 study found women perceive other women wearing red as more threatening, interested in sex, and worthy of being derogated, and they were even more willing than men were to economically punish red-clad women.

“The color red affects men differently than it affects women,” Sweeney says. “In regards to the workplace, you really have to look at who you’re going to be addressing that day. I always encourage people, look at your calendar. Who’s going to be in that meeting? What do you wanna say? Red may be the color, but it may not.”

Should you wear it to work?

Although the color red could potentially rub some people the wrong way depending on the context and who you’ll be around, there are still plenty of benefits to wearing the hue. Beyond its ability to make you the center of attention and appear more dominant, studies have found wearing red also makes people feel more confident and can even make you more productive by helping you focus, feel energized, and perform better with detail-oriented tasks.

One thing to note, however: Recent surveys of hiring managers found that black and blue are still the best colors to wear for a job interview.

“I think in an interview you need to stick to a very traditional way of dressing,” Cunningham says. “But again, that also depends on the dress code. That depends on the office setting. Because someone that’s very fashion-forward, and they’re working in a very creative department—why not wear a red suit?”

At the end of the day, your clothing only does so much of the work for you.

“I wouldn’t say there are any colors or tips or trick to help you stand out,” she adds. “To me, it’s all about confidence. It’s not about what you’re wearing all the time. It’s literally about how you’re wearing it. It’s the personality behind the clothes that tells the story more. You can have two women wearing the same dress, and both of them speak differently to someone else.”

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