woman in red dress in front of framed photographs hanging on wood paneled wall

I

In a play I saw recently, the heroine first appears onstage wearing a red dress . . . with her head bowed and turned away, due to social anxiety. The contrast is striking. There’s something about a red dress that shouts, “Look at me!” To see one on a young woman who so plainly wants to be invisible is painful.

II

Why is it so obvious that “the lady in red” (from Chris de Burgh’s 1986 hit song) projects confidence on the dance floor—even though the lyrics say nothing about how she carries herself?

III

“She caught a glimpse of herself in a glass . . . and wished that she had not worn red.”

—from The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This passage is from a scene in which the shy protagonist attends a fancy party.

She has recently decided to open a bookshop in a small, rural, and insular town by the sea. The people do not think their town has any particular need for a bookshop. They think that a townsperson—particularly a woman—who would open a bookshop must be uncommonly bold.

The woman herself does not feel or act bold, while wearing her red dress.

IV

Q: Should I wear this red dress to the party?
A: No.

Q: It’s a costume party.
A: Oh, then that’s all right.

Q: Kidding, it’s a normal party. But I spent a lot of money on this dress. It would be a shame not to wear it. It looked fabulous on me in the fitting room!
A: Are you a model, or do you play one on TV?

Q: No.
A: Then no.

Q: I’ve decided to wear the red dress! What’s the best way to wear it: with what jewelry; with hosiery or without; with which shoes?
A: Confidently.

Q: Are you sure about all this?
A: Since I happen to be wearing a red dress right now, I’m going to say YES!

V

Would a lady in blue need as much confidence as “the lady in red” has, to pull off the scene described in the 1986 hit song?

VI

“‘Why are you wearing red this evening?’ he asked.
“‘It isn’t red! It’s garnet, or deep rust!'”

—from The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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