Put on That Red Dress?

Research shows that women are more likely to wear red if they anticipate interacting with an attractive man.

Dr. Robert Burriss
Apr 6, 2016 · 4 min read
Waiting for that special someone? Nelson L./Flickr

Wearing red clothes makes women more attractive to men. But do women take advantage of this fact by wearing red when they want to attract a man’s attention?

Keen followers of this blog will know that the color red is strongly linked to desire and attraction. Men are more attracted to women who wear red, and it seems that women who want to attract men do so by wearing red. For example, there is evidence that women report wearing red clothes more often during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, and women surveyed online reported that they would be more likely to don a red outfit when dressing for a date rather than a non-romantic encounter.

However, scientists are never happy until they have tackled a problem from every angle. How do we know for sure that women prefer to wear red when they go on dates? Can we trust respondents to an internet survey? They may think that they would dress in red for a romantic encounter, but the reality could be much different (very few of us keep a precise diary of which clothes we wear to every social occasion). Also, even in laboratory studies where women express a preference for one clothing color over another, the choice is usually between fire-engine red and some other equally garish shade. A lot of women will like red, but don’t want to walk around looking like a pillar box.

Daniela Niesta Kayser of the University of Potsdam in Germany, along with her research collaborators in Munich and the US, invited women to visit the lab to participate in a psychology experiment. Interested women were emailed directions to the lab, along with a photograph of a male undergraduate researcher who would be running the experiment. The photograph was included in the email so that the women would be able to recognise the researcher when they arrived.

Or at least, that’s what the women were told. In fact, the ‘researcher’ was one of two students from another university whose photographs had previously been rated for attractiveness by 20 women. One man received an average score of 6.6 out of 9: he was a good looking chap. Another got a score of 3.9: not so hot.

Half of Niesta Kayser’s volunteers received a photo of the handsome man, and the other half received a photo of the less attractive man. When the volunteers showed up at the lab they were told that the researcher they were supposed to meet was unavailable, and so another researcher would be running the experiment. That researcher took a full-body photo of the volunteer.

Later, other research assistants, who had no idea what the study was about, pored over the photos and made a note of what each volunteer was wearing. Volunteers were classified as wearing red if any part of their clothing, including their accessories, was red, pink, or scarlet. Colors less similar to red (e.g. orange, maroon, purple) were not included.

Women were more likely to show up to the lab wearing red if they expected to be greeted by a handsome man. 57% of the women who expected to meet the attractive man wore red, but only 16% of the women wore red when they expected to meet the unattractive man.

But are women choosing to wear more red to attract the hot guy, or choosing to wear less red to put off the unattractive man?

Niesta Kayser checked how many women in the same university normally wore red by observing 200 customers at a campus cafeteria. 32% of these women wore red, roughly halfway between the number of women who wore red to meet a man who was hot and a man who was not. Assuming that cafeteria customers represent a baseline population, this suggests that volunteers in the main study were choosing to wear more red to meet the attractive researcher, and choosing not to wear red to meet the unattractive researcher.

The authors of the study say:

Women often enhance their attractiveness as a way of competing with other women to gain the attention of desirable men. This phenomenon may extend to color displays, as the color red appears to be one feature that enhances perceptions of a woman’s attractiveness.

They also suggest that future research could test the effects of female-female competitiveness on women’s desire to wear red clothing.

Niesta Kayser, D., Agthe, M., & Maner, J. K. (2016). Strategic sexual signals: Women’s display versus avoidance of the color red depends on the attractiveness of an anticipated interaction partner. PLoS One, 11(3), e0148501. Read paper

For an audio version of this story, see the 5 April 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Dr. Robert Burriss

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Postdoc at Basel University, Switzerland. Evolutionary psychologist. Studies human attraction and mate choice. More at RobertBurriss.com