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RED ALERT On film, in fashion and on the street,the redhead is giving the cult of the blond a run for its money


Better dead than red": It's a slogan that defined an era.

And it was more than a rallying cry against the specter of world communism. For most women, "Better dead than red" was a fashion edict that said you're either a blond or a brunette.

Then a funny thing happened: We won the Cold War.

And suddenly, after decades of repression, it's cool to be red.

A redhead, that is.

"You can see it on the streets of Baltimore," says Jordan Ferraro, a Bolton Hill resident and co-owner of Allure, a beauty salon in suburban Washington. "Red hair began slowly creeping in a few months ago, but now I see women with unrepentantly red hair."

Why the sudden surge in copper tops? Beyond the not-too-serious theory that the collapse of Eurocommunism is making women see red, a few other trends help explain the resurgence of scarlet.

And they're all very hip.

Retro-glamour, longer hairstyles, the current fascination with the advances in hair-dye technology, "Thelma and Louise" -- add them all up and it's not hard to see why red is giving the cult of the blond a run for its money.

"Red hair is sensual, sexy, glamorous!" exclaims Felicia Milewicz, beauty and health director for Mademoiselle -- and, not too surprisingly, a redhead herself. "It reminds us of the glamour of old Hollywood movies."

Is it any surprise that fashion is taking a retro-glamour detour toward the '40s? The allure of that decade is making a comeback-- on television (ABC's "Homefront"), in the movies (Melanie Griffith in "Shining Through," Bette Midler's "For the Boys") and in clothing (seamed stockings and long skirts are back). You could say the shift to red is only natural.

"Men look at redheads and see those voluptuous images of World War II, like those sexy, wavy-haired pinups painted on the sides of bombers," says Tammy Kranzo, chief colorist at Sebastian International, a California-based beauty company. "And today, women are growing their hair longer, so they can do more with beautiful rich waves that let the red stand out."

Like longer hair, the heightened body-consciousness that began the '80s lends itself to the cult of the red.

"The image of the redhead is a sex kitten with a voluptuous body," explains Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure. "It's the old-fashioned, total woman thing."

So it's agreed -- red hair is sexy. But that's not all: With only two out of 25 people coming by it naturally, redheads will always command an aura of mystery.

"Red makes women feel special -- it's a more mysterious color," ** Ms. Kranzo says. "Anybody can be blond or brunette, but red is different. There's a feeling of power."

Still, switching to red -- or even adding red highlights -- means moving away from the mainstream. "You have to understand that psychologically, we're in a minority," Ms. Milewicz warns. "You always stand out in a crowd."

In other words, red hair isn't for the faint of heart.

"The quintessential redheads are Thelma and Louise," says Ms. Wells, referring to last year's female buddy movie about two red-haired rebels on a crime spree. "The image is two women riding in a convertible, the wind in their hair. It says, 'We're independent, we're strong, you better watch out.' Women are switching to red to proclaim their independence."

If you're a free spirit thinking of making the change, be forewarned: Redheads, like blonds, are often the victims of stereotypes.

"Redheads are supposed to be hot-tempered and passionate, which, like most stereotypes, is wrong," Ms. Wells continues. "That's what was fun about Thelma and Louise -- they were passionate, but they were also independent. It transcended the stereotype into a positive image."

Regardless of why a woman decides to switch to glorious red, today's hair-color options transcend the brassy glamourpuss look of Lucille Ball.

Thanks to a new generation of chemical helpmates, redheads-to-be can choose from a spectrum of colors and shades -- from an unswervingly crimson made to be noticed, to the sultry richness of mahogany-like auburn, to the pale tresses of strawberry blond.

While the red dyes popular during the '40s and '50s made possible wonderful hair colors, Ms. Kranzo says today's colors derived from natural ingredients are equal, if not superior, to the older dyes that were also toxic.

In addition to an iridescent intensity, the new dyes make possible a wide range of colors. "You can play among many different shades of red, use shades on shades, and enhance a woman's beauty in subtle ways," Mr. Ferraro says.

"The new technology has perfected red," Ms. Milewicz adds. "It looks very natural now, and it's safe."

Even with non-toxic dyes that do the job, red isn't for everybody. How can you tell if it's the right hair color for you?

"Before blonds or brunettes make the decision to switch to red, ** they should find a good colorist," Ms. Milewicz recommends. "What looks good on me doesn't necessarily look good on my girlfriend."

However, here's a test you can try at home: If lots of sun imparts red highlights to your hair, experts say you're a good candidate. so far.

"There are so many different ways to do red hair," Ms. Kranzo points out. "Highlights, bright, dark, subtle -- the important thing is finding what works for you, not what a hairdresser wants to give you. The most important thing about red hair is to look natural."

In a post-Cold War, retro-glamour, Thelma and Louise world, that may be the best advice you'll hear on the subject of red hair.

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