I have a suspicion. Just as the French entrust their language to a council of bookish elders, the Americans have one for the colors of their fabrics. And every time they huddle in secret into their windowless room, they agree on one thing-- keep the color red imprisoned in an opaque glass jar. There it waits, sucking breaths from air holes punched in the lid, until the muffled call of a court date, red carpet premiere or some other important event summons it to wield its powers in the service of the wearer.
This fall the jar seems emptier than usual. Hillary Clinton sent reporters rushing for their matador metaphors with her red suit at the first presidential debate, and at the second, a stage full of blue and grey outfits shrank behind the blazing glare of Ken Bone’s Izod sweater, which helped propel the undecided voter to semi celebrity status. Then The Walking Dead made headlines by giving two of its main characters new red outfits, if wearing your own viscera counts as an outfit.
With one color capable of turning mortals into memes, it’s no surprise that menswear writers struggle to make red approachable. Instead they do the opposite, dispensing advice that reads like the labels on prescription drug containers. “Wear in moderation,” they will say. A little at a time until you’re comfortable. But be careful what other colors you trace it with! Most men shrug and stick with blue.
But there’s a powerful argument for letting go of caution and covering every inch of your body in red. It lies in a tiny room in the Sackler Gallery in Washington DC, where an exhibition has placed a Ming Dynasty vase a few feet away from a Rothko painting. Both works, if you haven’t guessed, are red, and together they show that the key to making red compatible with everyday life is not less of it, but more. Way more.
Rothko, painted his piece as part of a series for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, a client he viewed with something short of respect. As he told journalist John Fisher in 1970, “I accepted this assignment as a challenge, with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” The ceramic artisans of the Ming Dynasty, on the other hand, didn’t quite weaponize the color like Rothko did. The vase would be used before the Altar of the Sun and aid in a sort of spiritual camaraderie.
Neither of these back stories matter. By depriving the art of its context and stuffing it in such close quarters, the Sackler Gallery shifts our focus away from the symbolism and toward the depths of the reds themselves. The speckles of the glaze, the layers of paint. The more reds are stacked on top of each other, the less each instance of red means.
If we really want to squeeze red into more wardrobes, we need to stack our reds even higher and plant them deeper; we need to drown the streets in so much red fabric that no one has time to ponder the individual garments. You actually bought a Ken Bone sweater? Wear it under this Robert Geller bomber for a dowdier but much more topical version of look 26 from Geller’s Autumn 2016 collection. Then tell your friends to do the same. Crowds will look more vibrant. And we won’t have to hear the phrase “power tie” ever again.
Photo: National Gallery of Art