Culture, Style
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A Life Too Red: Flirting With a Dangerous Color

(Photo Credit: ozmafan/Flickr)

I was eight years old when I first heard my mother attack the color red. We were in Macy’s shopping for an Easter dress, and I pulled out a bright red number, one overlaid with white voile and sprigged with daisies

“No, honey,” she said firmly. “Blonds can’t wear red. It makes them look like tarts.”

At that age, I thought my mother was talking about pastry tarts, which she often baked with raspberry jam. While I loved jam tarts, I understood that you wouldn’t want to look like a piece of pastry. So I accepted my mother’s judgment , pushed the dress back on the rack and settled for the pale blue piece that she thought was more suitable.

Her dismissal of red continued, unabated, as I grew up, but my acceptance of her clothing dictums did not. It became clear to me that my mother not only disparaged red, she disliked any color that drew the eye. Her favorite color was beige. It went with everything, she said, and it was always suitable. On occasion she’d wear hunter green or brown, but never yellow, pink, orange or teal.

To her dismay, I loved color, so as soon as I could start to assert my right to choose my own clothes — at about the age of 12 — I began wearing anything bright. Except for red. That always seemed to be a hue too far.

But I longed to wear red, especially red shoes. There is nothing quite so dashing, quite so, “I can take on the world” like a pair of red pumps.

Even when I finished college and married, my mother’s voice in my ear prevented me from wearing too much red. If it was a print, or a wine color, it was okay. But fire-engine red? Forget it. By now I understood her reference. “You wouldn’t want to look cheap, like some trollop,” was hardly a hidden message. Better to blend in, to not take the risk of being misunderstood. Better to not try anything new, better not to extend yourself, better to be appropriate and look acceptable at all times.

As you can imagine, my career choice as a newspaper reporter was like waiving a red flag. My mother worried when I traveled, worried when I interviewed strange people, worried when I wrote stories that created controversy. I proceeded with all these ventures against her wishes, but it was exhausting. There was always that voice, that familiar voice with its Austrian accent, telling me that I was too pushy, too selfish, to determined to follow my own path, and that it would all end in disaster. In other words, my life was too red.

When I was in my forties, my mother got cancer and died. It was horrible watching her decline and fade away, and when she passed, I missed that voice worrying about me more than I can say. But one day, maybe six months later, I passed a shoe store and stopped, transfixed, at the sight of a pair of red suede shoes in the window. They had a medium heel and a round toe, but they were bright crimson. I went in and bought them, and this opened the floodgates. Soon I had a red coat, red dresses, red purses, and a red hat. With every purchase, I felt my spirit expand. I felt more myself.

And no one, ever, accused me of looking like a tart, pastry or otherwise. In fact, one day I was running a seminar at the University of Chicago with about 300 attendees. I stood at the podium in my severe blue suit and introduced the keynote speaker, then left the stage to sit in the audience.

A man I did not know sat down next to me. After a minute, he tapped me on the arm.

“I love your shoes,” he said with a grin. “A woman who wears red shoes has to be an interesting person.”

“That’s nice to hear,” I said. ‘Wish you could have told my mother.”

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