In thinking about writing and creating new worlds, it’s always useful to consider our own world and your own culture to assist you in deciding what is the best way to flesh out your fictional world.
I find as I look at my own world (white, U.S. citizen, female), that a lot of the thinking and world building I do ends up revolving around women. Luckily, my main characters are typically female, so this works to my advantage. The one thing that women in the world as I experience it deal with is societal expectations as far as getting married and having children, what you wear and what you look like. As I’ve gotten older, these three things seem to have diminished in significance, or I’ve simply gotten to a place in life where I don’t have people around me who judge me for who I am and how I live my life.
But, when I watch television or listen to the radio, I often come across social commentary about women and what they wear. And more than that, it comes down to the color. So, today I want to talk about the cultural construct of the color red. From film, to music and literature, red dresses play an interesting role and endure as a symbol of sexuality, sexual freedom, independence, but also carry society’s perspective and often suggest a woman who is loose with her morals or is a prostitute.
One of my earliest experiences with the phenomenon of the woman in the red dress comes from The Matrix. I was thirteen when that movie came out and I remember the implication of the famed woman in the red dress in the training program that Neo plugs into to learn about the matrix and how to become the hero he’s meant to be.
Roxanne, a song by The Police which came out in the 1970s talks about a woman in a certain dress. Here are the lyrics: Roxanne you don’t have to put on the red light / Those days are over and you don’t have to sell your body to the night / Roxanne, you don’t have to ear that dress tonight / Walk the streets for money you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right. Of course, the song itself doesn’t tell you what color the dress is. But, I see nothing but a red dress because I first experienced this song in the movie Moulin Rouge! featuring Nicole Kidman. When that song pops up on the soundtrack, Kidman’s character is wearing a stunning red satin dress. So, even if the song by The Police didn’t necessarily mean a red dress, it’s what’s burned into my skull. This is another example of the color red being connected to a woman who wields her sexuality to make money or it suggests that a woman’s clothing says something about who a woman is and what her values are perceived to be.
Lastly, I wanted to mention a newer song. Wait by Maroon 5 also makes reference to a woman wearing a dress of a certain color and being judged based on it. Here are the lyrics: Dirty looks from your mother / Never seen you in a dress that color, no. Now, you can’t assume that the song intends the dress to be red. We’d have to watch the music video to see how this is interpreted.
Now, the point of this post isn’t to make a judgment of people based on what color they wear, what they wear or even judge the people who do the judging. The idea for this post didn’t come out of a negative situation, either. In fact, my boyfriend and I were recently at a wedding. I wore a gorgeous orange/red dress. It was April and cold. But I wanted to wear something bright and colorful because, officially, it was spring. I really stood out in the crowd because most people wore darker colors because it still felt like winter. No there was no judgment of my dress or anything like it. I honestly just started thinking about colors and how they’re used in culture.
Thinking across cultures, red has a variety of meanings. From being the color associated with death, to being the color associated with marriage, the interpretation of this color is wide-ranging.
I mention all of this to say, when you’re world building, even colors can tell the reader something about your world, so don’t skip out on those details. Do the characters wear a certain color? This is an easy way to differentiate between people or armies of different countries. Is there a color they refrain from wearing? If so, why? You can convey a lot with even the most finite details.