Scarlet—the sultry shade of red that has been a favourite of history’s most memorable leading ladies—is making a strong comeback this season. Among a bevy of silky, lacy, leathery blacks, this splash of hot colour is signalling a shift in not only suits, gowns, coats and shoes but also lips and nails. This hue, symbolic of the irresistible emotive undercurrents of power and passion, has moved from the spring/summer 2023 runways to become a red-carpet, social-media and celebrity-wardrobe darling. Are we in the mood for love?

Since they first appeared in the late Neolithic period (which ended in about 2200 BC), garments made with scarlet dyes have been considered highly prestigious and associated with the qualities of courage, force, lust and joy. In religious history, they’ve been symbolic of divine love, sacrifice and the metaphorical blood of saints and martyrs. But they’ve also been symbols of the opposite: the vices of immorality, hedonism and sin. Inspired by both piety and extravagance, as well as the beauty of Basque flamenco dancers and bullfighters, the late Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga captured the red mood and was the first to bring scarlet to mainstream fashion. Dressing in this hue has since become as much a symbol of seduction and luxury in high fashion as it has of vitality and action in streetwear, where it signifies youth culture, athletic prowess, effortless sex appeal and protest in brands from Supreme to Nike Air. The emotional strength and ambiguity of this special shade of red makes it the colour of the heart—and the most statement-making.

This fiery spirit was evident at Alexander McQueen, where scarlet dresses with cut-outs elegantly revealed skin and bold low-cut red suits gave us a more intimate glimpse into contemporary femininity and served as an expression of today’s woman. “It’s always about a woman dressing for a woman, so it’s not a male gaze,” said Sarah Burton, the brand’s creative director, in a statement about the show. “I wanted to sort of embrace the female form in a kind of dissected [manner].”


YSL added some secrecy to this hot mood with a bold-shouldered dark-scarlet long leather jacket over a body-hugging aubergine hooded dress, complete with sunglasses. Raf Simons, whose spring/summer 2023 show turned out to be his finale, paired a scarlet mesh micro-dress with a matching fur vest and tights for a layered look that screamed both casual confidence and quiet, simmering passion. Taking that simmer to a rolling boil, at Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe, a giant scarlet anthurium flower was the centrepiece of a show that featured this red leitmotif on dresses and shoes. And it was no surprise to get a similar feverish feeling at Valentino; the house’s commitment to romantic scarlet (known as Rosso Valentino) has been de rigueur since its first collection (in 1959) and is the subject of a namesake book recently launched by the brand. The couture show’s signature floor-length scarlet gown was exceptionally mysterious. Concealing everything but the neck, it was a contrapposto to the opening look—a traffic-stopping minidress made of taffeta red roses.

The complex glamour of scarlet has also ruled the red carpets—so much so that when Selena Gomez arrived at the Critics’ Choice Awards last March in Louis Vuitton, she made headlines for wearing “red-carpet red.” Gomez joined many others dressed in the vivid hue, including Elizabeth Olsen, Issa Rae, Kaitlyn Dever and Chrissy Metz. At May’s Cannes Film Festival, Olivia Culpo wore a daring low-necked, high-slit scarlet YSL suit dress, while Kristen Stewart gave the colour some cool charm with her all-red Chanel pantsuit. Diane Kruger oozed elegance in scarlet Oscar de la Renta, Kaia Gerber was a beacon in floor-sweeping Celine and Noomi Rapace’s Paula Rowan gloves were audacious. The 2022 Oscars were just as carnal. Kirsten Dunst (in chiffon Lacroix) and Amelie Zilber (in soft Dior) recast scarlet as the colour of the heart. And love was in the air at the Met Gala as well; the feeling was infectious when TikTok star Avani Gregg went viral wearing a red Bach Mai gown with matching leather gloves and posed against a red-rose wall.

The emotional strength and ambiguity of this special shade of red makes it the colour of the heart—and the most statement-making.

But it seems like this flood of emotion has been waiting for us on the sidelines. Flame Scarlet made the top of the list of Pantone colours in the summer of 2020, when isolation was creating more of a desire to couple-up and rediscover our fiery passions. In the current context—alongside the aftershocks of #MeToo and the ongoing cancel culture—scarlet’s return could be alarming. It might be a signal of rage, revolt or danger or mean “red flag.” But it could also be a cry for change and a reminder from deep within that no matter how digital and independent we have become, or how political our relationships seem to be, our hearts are still human and we crave connection.

“Red is the great clarifier—bright, cleansing and revealing,” said the late Diana Vreeland, former Vogue editor-in-chief and empress of fashion. “It makes all colours beautiful. I can’t imagine becoming bored with red; it would be like becoming bored with the person you love.” 

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