Are You the Lady in Red? Here is How People See You

How a red dress can be mistaken for a “green light.”

Posted Apr 02, 2018

Passion or Fashion?

Everyone has spotted the “lady in red.”  She is hard to miss. From the boardroom to the ballroom, women wearing red receive attention. Yet is that why they choose that color? Research reveals that not only does wearing red affect the way people see us, it impacts how they interpret our color choice.

Elliot et al. in “Color Psychology” (2014) conducted wide-ranging research on the impact that colors have on human beings in a variety of contexts, focusing on affiliation/ attraction and achievement settings.[i]  They acknowledge that color has a significant impact on cognition, affect, and behavior. 

They note that the color red is in a class of its own regarding the significance of its effect on people.  Other research discusses the range of observer reactions upon “seeing red.”

Mixed Results Regarding Red and Attraction

Early studies, including research by Elliot and Daniela Niesta (2008), found what is referred to in the literature as a “red-sex” link, showing that men perceived women portrayed against red backgrounds to be more attractive and sexually desirable.[ii]  Another study revealed that waitresses who wore red T-shirts, as opposed to other colors, received more tips, but only from male patrons.[iii]

Recent research, however, failed to support the “red-sex link.”  A study by Peperkoorn et al. (2016) failed to find a sexual preference for men viewing women in red, white, or black.[iv]  

Aside from its effect on the viewer, research indicates that wearing red may cause others to jump to conclusions regarding the intent of the wearer.

When a Red Dress is Viewed as a “Green Light”

Contrary to traffic signals, wearing red can have the opposite effect when it comes to interpreting sexual signals.  Research by Gueguen (2012) found that men are inclined to interpret a woman wearing red as a sexual signal, regardless of whether women intend their color selection to have that effect.[v]

To investigate the tendency of men to overestimate a woman´s sexual intent when they wore red, he had men view women in photographs wearing either a red, green, blue, or white tee shirt.  The men evaluated the attractiveness of the women, as well as their sexual intent.

The men attributed higher sexual intent to the women wearing the red shirt than in the other conditions.  Interestingly, ratings of attractiveness did not moderate this finding.  

Red Lights Online

Elliot and Pazda in “Dressed for Sex: Red as a Female Sexual Signal in Humans,” (2012) researched women´s use of the color red on dating website profiles.  They found that women who indicated an interest in casual sex were more likely to prominently display red (as opposed to green, blue, or black) on their web profile picture, compared with women who did not indicate such an interest.[vi]  

In another study, they found that women using a website with an emphasis on short-term sexual relationships were more likely to showcase red (as opposed to green, blue, or black) on their profile picture than women using a website geared to developing marriage-bound relationships.

In discussing their results, the researchers indicated that although their findings linked women’s displays of red on dating websites to their interest in sex, the color red was not the color most commonly worn by women who were interested in sex.  It was black.  They explain that when women did display the color red, the odds were over two times greater than they were interested in sex, than not interested.

Elliot and Pazda label their findings as probabilistic, explaining that they do not mean that every woman who wears red is interested in sex. They also note that prior research (Pazda et al. 2013; Roberts et al. 2010) demonstrated that black causes men to view women as more attractive, although it has not been shown to change their behavior toward women (Gueguen 2012b; Gueguen & Jacob 2013a, b).

The Importance of Character Over Color

Perhaps initially, for some people, colors matter. Yet in most cases, a red dress is simply a fashion choice, not a signal of sexual availability or interest.  A better plan is to get to know the character behind the color.


[i]Andrew J. Elliot and Markus A. Maier, “Color Psychology: Effects of Perceiving Color on Psychological Functioning in Humans,”Annu. Rev. Psychol. 65 (2014): 95-120.

[ii]Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta, “Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women,”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology95, no. 5 (2008): 1150–64.

[iii]Nicolas Guéguen and Céline Jacob, “Clothing Color and Tipping: Gentlemen Patrons Give More Tips to Waitresses with Red Clothes,” Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research38, iss. 2 (2012): 275 – 280.

[iv]Leonard S. Peperkoorn, S. CraigRoberts, and Thomas V. Pollet, “Revisiting the Red Effect on Attractiveness and Sexual Receptivity,” Evolutionary Psychology 

14, iss. 4 (2016): 1-13.

[v]Nicolas Guéguen, “Color and Women Attractiveness: When Red Clothed Women Are Perceived to Have More Intense Sexual Intent,”  Journal Of Social Psychology152, no. 3 (2012): 261-265. 

[vi]Andrew J. Elliot and Adam D. Pazda, “Dressed for Sex: Red as a Female Sexual Signal in Humans,” PLoS ONE 7(4): e34607. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034607.