Looking at my wardrobe, my red blouse is probably the top I wear the least. It sits alone, gaining dust alongside my red lipstick, perfume bottle and a purse. Red is not an easy colour to wear. The sheer substance of the colour often leaves me feeling overdressed if I wear it to the university or the cinema and too sophisticated at a club or a bar. But my qualms with wearing red run deeper than the social etiquette of the places I frequent.
It’s because I haven’t let go of my pink-filled girlhood and transitioned to a red-wearing woman. I realised from my reluctance to use those neglected belongings that pinks and reds have transcended from being mere non-evaluative adjectives to becoming objective properties. Rather, they’ve come to provide a means by which different tones of femininity can be performed. Since I’m not yet comfortable filling in the shoes of a woman, I usually don’t stray any farther than my pink-tinted lip balm.
Pink dominated my childhood, as it does for most young girls. That I was a little girl seemed to inherently imply that I loved all things pink. Whether I liked it or not, my room was pink, my clothes were pink, my toys were pink and my birthday cakes were pink. The colour illuminates a realm of innocence and vulnerability – literally to be pinked, bruised, wounded, and thus a seemingly appropriate colour to encompass girlhood.
If pink narrates a proneness to injury, red on the other hand is the colour of blood itself. It signifies life, health and fertility. It’s strong, bold and durable. It was an ‘adult’ colour. My parents would drink red wine while I sipped on my strawberry milk. My elder sister’s underwear and mine were often just different shades of the same pattern – my pink panties with little white daisies would hang to dry next to her red thong with flowery lace patterns. When selecting hand-me-downs from my older sister, she and my mother would be careful to pick out clothes that looked “innocent” and not sexual or inappropriate. The dresses they picked out were invariably pink or other light colours. The dresses that were off-limits to me were often the deep reds.
These colours create a sort of predetermined route of femininity over different stages of life. Unspoken norms prescribe different shades of red for each stage of life – a lighter, toned down pink for a young girl, bright red for a young fertile woman and a darker yet subdued maroon for women past their prime. Of course, this doesn’t mean that young women don’t wear pink or older women never use red but rather that when they do, they then become associated with the value of that colour. It’s what makes a red dress inappropriate for a child to wear, an older woman with red lipstick seem like a “cougar”, or a young woman wearing pink, dainty.
The affect these colours have on us instinctively take on and sculpt the expression of femininity in girls and women. While we are used to having aesthetic relations to artworks and allow those aesthetics to branch out into genres, styles and categories, the vast variation in expressions through red shows how one can still readily have aesthetic relations to entities which are not art, but to the artfully designed and packaged concepts that surround us on an everyday basis in particular.
Whether it’s in the power that a red lip exudes or the elegance of a maroon, the shades of red come together and femininity forms its own gendered palette. This speaks not only for the textures of femininity but the extent to which material objects form a locus around which social, historical and political categories are formed.
Sashna Chandrasekharan is a writer based between Amsterdam and Chennai. She’s interested in writing observational narratives with socio-political undertones and has contributed pieces to a variety of magazines internationally.