“Be the Reds!”

Soccer Fan T-Shirt, Seoul, Korea 2002

“..beat him like a redheaded stepchild.”

Proverbial expression, Illinois, 2002

“I feel really sorry for you middle-aged women…” The voice is coming from behind me. Is that all my birthdays trailing me through Bergner’s department store, or is that Lucy, my 14-year-old Natalie Wood-look-alike?

“… I mean, you have no place to shop. Look what they’re offering you.” There’s outrage in her voice.

We are stalled in Better Sportswear between Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne. Truer words were never spoken, Lucy. There’s the Polo look of deep navy, gold and green plaids on one side of the aisle, and Liz’s country club look, bold stripes and cabled knits in primary colors on the other. From the ceiling hangs a poster of a perfectly made up blond women hugging a Golden retriever. “You’re right, let’s split.”

We’re shopping for red sweaters because, even though it’s September 22 and 82 degrees outside, last winter I had a serious sweater crisis. I’d landed in central Illinois from Southern California with a box of wool clothing I hadn’t worn in twenty years. By the time I realized how cold it was getting, it was January and far too late. There was nothing in the stores except “cruise wear.”

Actually, my sweater problem was a color problem. A BIG color problem. By February, the Illinois sky had been low and gray for months, and there were months to go. Months of gritty parking lots and winds whipping down from Canada. Unbroken glacial plains from Dodgeville, Wisconsin to the Indiana border. Months of long underwear. It was so dark in the morning that we ate oatmeal by candlelight. In January there had been a brief, remarkable hot spell, and my witch hazel trees suddenly bloomed bright red. Birds began to nest prematurely. The next week an ice storm wiped out the witch hazels and stomped some foolhardy crocuses. The birds must have survived. My neighbors were taunting me for being a softie. I noticed that at parties they all told “great ice storm of 1991”-type stories. “We haven’t even had a power outage yet” they laughed. I could tell they were looking forward to the big, weeklong power outage party at the house of the guy with a generator.

I brought with me that chic Southern California winter wardrobe — all black. Except for a few pieces from the year when the New York Times style pages told us “Gray is the new black,” I had black pants, black skirts, several black sweaters, a black vest. Admittedly, I also owned a brown dress and a grey dress, too, and they could be brightened up with scarves. True, I had fuchsia and chartreuse blouses that could occasionally peek out, like those poor crocuses, from under my black sweaters, but in Illinois you have to wear so many layers that it hardly made any difference. I had a black woolly hat. Well, black was tres chic in San Diego. This shouldn’t have been so hard, I’ve lived cold places most of my life, including Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Wyoming. But by February I was afraid to look in my closet.

My students were making things worse. They were all coughing what I think of as the “Illinois cough” — it starts before midterms, a deep wet bronchial hack that just never goes away. They sat palely in class, hungover or overworked, or both, and glared at me for assigning whole books. They wore the Gap/Abercrombie/surplus store palette: black, gray, navy and “dirty” blue denim, the faded disaffected dingy colors of college kids. (Their belly-buttons all showed, too — on purpose — but in February?)

And my workplace wasn’t helping. My refurbished WPA-era building had not yet been repainted. The inside of Gregory Hall was still that hospital green people in the ’40s thought was soothing. Under fluorescent lights, the foyer looked like the bottom of an aquarium. I felt like I was swimming underwater as I passed the busts of the barons of the 19th-century press — Medill, Scripps, St. Clair. The only bright face was Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the Illinois abolitionist editor murdered for publishing antislavery tracts at Alton. The dean had proudly pulled the plaster portrait out of the lineup and given Lovejoy a spot of honor in an alcove, right over Daily Illini box. I gave Elijah Lovejoy an admiring glance every morning as I headed to my office.

I started exercising more. I considered dyeing my hair red. I wore more makeup, but it made me feel embarrassed whenever I saw Elijah’s unclouded face. I wore Chanel No. 5 to class to cheer myself up. The students snoozed on. I dug down in an old chest and found a red sweater from the 1980s, snipped out the shoulder pads and tried it on. It had two moth holes (fixable) and a dark stain near the collar, probably from nursing Lucy. It wouldn’t come out, but my students would never notice. For two months I wore that red sweater like a life preserver, and I didn’t feel better until my neighbor’s redbud began to bloom, producing something I’ve never seen before, a tree outlined in bright violet. Redbuds flower before they leaf out.

This is not going to happen again. Lucy is going to help me get a collection of new red sweaters.

What is it about red? The proverbial wisdom about red is suspicious and contradictory. Red is the color of magic and power in folklore, but it also the color of betrayal. Brewer writes “the red haired have been popularly held to be unreliable ….” In tradition, Judas Iscariot was said to have red hair.

It is also the color of shame. One can be caught red-handed, the red stain disclosing some horrible secret, the scarlet letter, searing Hester Prynne’s breast.

Thus the red-handed stepchild, more despised than any other of the mix and match kids, because he or she gives up some skeleton in the genetic closet. Irish blood, perhaps, in the days before was cool to be Irish.

But red is also the color of ecstasy, and courage to the hilt. And sometimes the two go together. In the French Republic, the “Red Republicans never hesitated to dye their hands in blood.” They took it all the way. And of course, red signals anarchy and revolution. But this year in Seoul, Korean soccer fans could apparently ignore the color’s political implications and urge their team to “Be the Reds!” But not so easy in the U.S. given our history, not for a long time. My friend who brought me back the T-shirt cautioned “be careful where you wear this.”

“T. J. Maxx,” announces Lucy, and I know I can trust her. T. J. Maxx is a super-discounter dealing in manufacturers’ overruns and overstocks from the upscale retailers. It’s “the only place to shop in this town” according to Ruth, my deeply-artificially- tanned, botoxed and very stylish haircutter. T. J. Maxx organizes clothing by size (“Misses,” “Womens”) and type (“Sportswear” “Career,”) rather than by designer or department. There are no unionized saleswomen, no alterations shop, no counters where you can get a makeover, no extra overhead at all, just huge racks of clothing that go on forever. You find your size (“Medium”) and start sorting through the world’s overproduction. In fact, T. J. Maxx signals the end of the department store, and you can tell this by the mix of poor and well-dressed people shopping there. The merchandise comes from China, Macao, Korea, Honduras, everywhere, just like the clothing at Nordstrom, Saks, and Marshall Field. Most of it’s not dirt cheap, but it’s definitely cheaper than retail.

“Sweaters, Mom,” gestures Lucy. We fill a cart with about forty, and start winnowing. What I want is a color without a speck of gray mixed in. There’s cherry red (too reminiscent of last year’s angora lifesaver), brick red (yes), flag red (no, too Ralph), terra-cotta (yes), ruby (no), garnet (yes), burgundy (no no no), red and burnt orange (yes), and fuchsia (yes!). We work our way through textures, sleeve lengths and necklines, and end up with four that will make me feel hopeful every time I look in my closet. Somehow a blue green fuzzball with hydrangea flecks creeps in. That’s okay. A little electric blue-green never hurt anybody. On our way through checkout, I snag a long thick muffler, brick with a camel stripe, just to be safe.

Why was I so sure red would fix my problems? It seems the most intense answer to black and gray. Wearing red is definitely about NOT wearing black. In fact, red is the new black.

Red is also associated endlessly in literature and poetry with women, with their messy reproductive lives. Women menstruate, they have bright red flowerings every month that everyone covers up, despises like the red headed stepchild, and tries to pretend aren’t happening. Yet we also claim our messiness defines us. Some mothers are embarrassed to talk to their daughters about menstruation; others give them first period parties, with pink cakes, harkening back to some earlier celebrations of menarche. One friend told me of her deep resentment on finally figuring out the female reproductive cycle. Her mother told her that when she got her period she’d be able to have a baby. She deeply looked forward to it, and then was very disappointed to realize it happened month after month, year after year. Wasn’t once enough? I can see her point.

These days the drug companies want our culture to want it both ways. Some advertise unending femininity through hormonal replacement therapy that can give women side-effect bleeding into their ’60s and ’70s. Others, or possibly the same companies, argue that periods are a nuisance altogether, not to be thought about unless you’re planning a pregnancy. They promote a constant low dose of estrogen so women need have no monthly bleeding at all. No fuss, no muss, no red reminder, no nothing. There’s something weird about that. (Can you imagine the drug companies and the paper products industry going mano a mano over this issue? ) You can visit for all the details; the on-line Museum Of Menstruation is a lot funnier, and includes a collection of menstrual humor and an absorbing history of “sanitary protection.”

Who needs to be protected, and from what? As lots of feminists have pointed out, at some deep level menstrual blood remains fearsome, especially to men. But again, the attitude is double, ambivalent. In folklore woman’s monthly blood is also sometimes treated as magical and life giving.

The great joke collector Gershon Legman recorded several versions of a joke about a dying man resuscitated by performing oral sex on a menstruating woman. The sick man’s relatives arrive at the hospital expecting to find him stone dead, but he’s up, showered, shaving and whistling “Hail Brittania.” “Another transfusion like that and I’ll live forever!” “My favorite joke,” writes Legman: “Analyze away!”

That’s quite a different attitude from the pill mongers who would like to make blood disappear from our awareness, the same sorts of people, I suppose who would never allow any of us to die either, at least not of natural causes.

All that mess is a pain until it’s gone. Then some women miss it. Lucille Clifton has written the only poem I’ve come across about menopause. In “to my last period” she talks about menstruation like an unreliable girlfriend, a hussy:

“Well, girl, goodbye, after thirty eight years thirty eight years and you never arrived splendid in your red dress without trouble for me somewhere, somehow.”

now it is done, and i feel just like the grandmothers who afterthe hussy has gone, sit holding her photograph and sighing, wasn’t she beautiful, wasn’t she beautiful?

(Cary Nelson, ed. Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Oxford. 1991)

That’s red. Beautiful trouble.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is the author of Spectacular Nature.

She can be reached at