Design by Julianne Le

Julianne Le 
21 November 2020

Red was always a forbidden color.

Evoking sensuality, love, passion, urgency, boldness, bravery, power.

And what a privilege it is to be able to wear your favorite color. Restricted by cultural norms and high school dress codes, red always taunted me. Yet my inner rebel raced to embrace the color, surrounding myself in its warm glow.

Red is my mother’s favorite color, and as my mother’s daughter, I cherished her favorite things like any child would. I let my imagination run wild and dreamed of adorning myself in all of its shades, and yet, I was prohibited from wearing it at school. From elementary to middle school to high school, the ban on baby blue and red was immortalized into our school dress code— chalk it up to a few instances of gang violence on our campus and students for years to come weren’t allowed to don the colors. Tethered to bland khaki uniforms that stifled my only creative outlet, I patiently waited for the day red could make its way back into my life.

I was fifteen when my grandmother passed away. After the death of an elder, the Vietnamese follow a rich tradition of rituals that call for descendants of the deceased to abstain from wearing red as a sign of respect. The color typically symbolizes good luck, happiness, and prosperity, especially during seasons of celebration. During Lunar New Year, our homes are decorated with shades of red and gold to invite in as much good energy as possible. We give each other crisp bills packaged in red envelopes to share the wealth in hopes that prosperity finds its way back to us. Therefore culturally, it is deemed inconsiderate to wear a color so closely tied to happiness during a period of mourning. And once again, red disappeared from my wardrobe, shoved deeper into my closet, leaving pieces to wrinkle and collect dust. Who was I to go against tradition?

I never did well with rules— especially ones I had no control over. For so long I allowed myself to take the shape of whatever container I was in. To me, red was always out of reach,  out of respect for my school, my family, and my culture, so I accepted that it simply was off-limits. But eventually, after the appropriate mourning period had expired and once I had moved out for college, I was greeted with this newfound freedom; no longer was I restricted by outdated dress codes or under the purview of my family. One by one, little by little, the color red began materializing in front of me, showing up in random places, beckoning me to look.

Today it follows me everywhere. The SFMoma keychain on my keys. The laces on my beat-up white Air Forces. The ring that resides permanently on my right pointer finger. It is a reminder to be strong, be warm, be loving.

But there’s something to be said about a society that fears a woman in red. Perhaps it’s the fact that a woman who loves herself in red is a woman who recognizes her strength and steps into her power, challenging ideas that women should instead shrink themselves down to take up less space. Red beckons and calls, inviting looks and glances: “Look at me! Look at me!” The moment a woman embraces the color red, she is no longer seen as a girl, signaling a loss of her innocence— the loss of the one thing society deems valuable in a woman. Maybe that’s why they try and turn the color on us, branding us with scarlet letters of shame intended to discourage us from indulging in sex, in promiscuity, and in confidence.

And so I fully allowed myself to indulge in its brightness, filling my closet to the brim with pieces that never fail to make a statement. Today, wearing red is like a small act of resistance in it of itself– both a reminder of a past that forbade me from wearing it, and a celebration of the love, power, and freedom I see in myself today.