The Power of Red Dresses

Laura Tolentino

From Julia Roberts’ unstoppable shopping spree in Pretty Woman to Marilyn Monroe exuding timeless elegance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, red dresses have the power to stop people in their tracks. Red is known as an epithet for seduction, sensuality and romance – qualities associated with these special colors.

Lehigh’s exhibit paid homage to Metis artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project, an art installation that draws attention to the global crisis surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-Spirit people.

1. Red Dress Day

Each May at the beginning of May, empty red dresses appear across Canada to make a powerful statement about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Since 2010, Metis artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project has used these dresses as an act of respect and to raise awareness of gendered crimes against Indigenous women; Black chose red because one of her friends told him it is one color spirits can see.

Dresses serve as a stark reminder of the many Indigenous women and girls killed or missing since colonialism; their dresses also serve as a testament to systemic violence plaguing Indigenous communities – a result of being seen as separate from society, less-than human. According to one General Social Survey study, twice as many Indigenous Canadians reported experiencing domestic abuse than non-Indigenous Canadians.

Red Dress Day provides community members an opportunity to commemorate and support those affected by national issues, while working toward reconciliation. On this special occasion, participants are encouraged to wear red clothing and share their stories online using #RedDressDay on social media. In addition, fundraising efforts or attendance at marches or vigils may also show their support.

As a show of solidarity, attendees are asked to wear red dresses, shirts or ribbons during the event as a mark of support. Additionally, local businesses and small businesses that are participating can provide red dress pins as souvenirs; proceeds from sales of these pins will be donated back into supporting families of victims affected by MMIWG2S.

MMIWG2S is an urgent issue that demands our consideration and action. A national inquiry has been initiated to explore the ongoing murders of Indigenous women; Canadian government pledged over $1 billion over five years towards justice and equity for Indigenous women, children, youth men and families; the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls will issue its final report by 2022.

2. Heart Disease Awareness

American Heart Association’s National Wear Red Day and its Red Dress initiative provide an opportunity to bring awareness of women’s risk factors for cardiovascular disease to light. They seek to encourage them to get tested regularly, stay active, and eat healthily in an effort to promote preventative care and increase overall well-being. Red Dress Day also marks a time to advocate for increased funding to support research and prevention efforts. Celebrities like Sheryl Crow, Teri Hatcher and Ashley Greene have come out in support of this campaign as part of the Red Dress Collection fashion show. Fashion and music come together at this event to convey a powerful message: Heart Disease Doesn’t Care Who You Are or How You Look.” In 2002, The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) created The Heart Truth(r), as the first federally funded education campaign specifically targeting women regarding heart disease risk. Since then, millions have been reached through this campaign.

This campaign has become an international icon and beloved by both women and men alike, including celebrities and politicians. Reaching women via multiple channels such as fashion shows and health organizations as well as major corporations.

Lifetime TV and NHLBI conducted a survey that revealed that more than half of female respondents accurately identified heart disease as their leading cause of death in 2013, up from 46 percent in 2003. Furthermore, more women reported feeling personally at risk from cardiovascular diseases.

Metis artist Jamie Black initiated her REDress Project in 2010. The exhibit of empty red dresses originally intended as an art installation to appear in high traffic areas has since traveled across North America and been brought into universities as a guerrilla art piece, reaching new audiences and engaging with students and staff members.

Lehigh University exhibition is the result of collaboration between Black students in Professor Monica Najar’s Fall 2021 class “Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies 001: Gender and Society,” along with dresses donated from members of its Native and Indigenous Relations Community. This project seeks to remember those affected by violence against Indigenous people, particularly those murdered; recognize victims; address ongoing requests for justice; and provide access to healing for Indigenous communities worldwide.

3. Holidays

The holidays are a time for celebrating and giving, yet can also be difficult for many people – this is particularly true of millions living with HIV/AIDS who face discrimination and stigma throughout their journey. That’s why it’s essential that we celebrate this season with inclusivity and tolerance at heart.

One way of showing our love and admiration for those we’ve lost is by donning red. Red has special significance in various cultures, representing blood’s life-giving power as well as one of the few colors spirits can see; thus making it ideal for ceremonies to commemorate loved ones who have passed on.

Every year on Turtle Island, people hang empty red dresses as an annual gesture commemorating National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People or Red Dress Day – an effort to commemorate Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered as well as raise awareness about violence against them. This day serves to honor their memory while at the same time raising awareness of violence against them.

This movement was spurred on by Metis artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project in 2010. Her installation of empty red dresses has become a national symbol for MMIW crisis and serves as a way to remember those who have gone missing as well as bring their stories and memories back into our consciousness.

Many Indigenous activists wear red to support and raise awareness for this campaign, believing that loved ones who have gone missing can see them and can send their messages of hope and remembrance through them. It serves as a symbol of hope and reminds us that there’s still much work ahead in society as a whole.

The Red Dress Run is an annual charity event hosted in cities throughout North America that raises money for Indigenous health services. Each year thousands of participants gather in cities to take part in this run; many dressed in bright red dresses. It provides an invaluable opportunity to raise awareness of MMIWs while offering help and hope to those suffering.

4. Fashion

Red dresses can make powerful fashion statements, signaling confidence and assertiveness while simultaneously symbolizing love and romance – as witnessed in Julia Roberts’ red gown from “Pretty Woman” or Marilyn Monroe’s sparkly number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Additionally, their versatile color can easily transition between casual settings like picnics or daytime events to more formal settings with accessories and colors like fuchsia for daytime gatherings or deeper hues like burgundy for formal affairs.

Red is an integral symbol in Indigenous culture, symbolizing life-giving blood and one of only few colors spirits can see. Metis artist Jaime Black initiated the REDress Project in 2010 in response to the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) crisis, prompting Canada’s annual Red Dress Day event on Turtle Island where people wear red dresses in commemoration of those lost or murdered through MMIW or to bring awareness of their cause. People around Turtle Island hang red dresses in windows, yards or public spaces in honor of MMIW lives as memorial tribute or to bring awareness of MMIW lives lost or cause by raising awareness through spreading red dresses worn proudly across Turtle Island!

From Baz Luhrmann’s iconic jukebox musical to Margot Robbie’s head-to-toe look at the 2024 Critics Choice Awards, red dresses have long been considered statement pieces. From dramatic shoulder corsages to flowing, frothy skirts, these bold hues can help any figure stand out and it has long been a go-to color among costume designers and stylists.

As you dress in red, be bold about experimenting with various textures and shapes. An unusual faux fur stole or chunky knit cardigan can add texture to your look, while adding leather jacket will instantly elevate a classic red dress. Finding suitable footwear is also key; leather boots or tights with complementary hues will keep you warm and complement the rest of your ensemble well. Completing your ensemble with stylish watch or statement jewelry piece to highlight its colors while creating a flattering silhouette are key.