The Pink Revolution
It’s is one of the few colors that bears connotations beyond reason. Actually, it might be the only one. Pink is so much more than a blend of red and white. What other shade telegraphs so much all at once? Feminism or youth or innocence or all of the above—take your pick. Pink will send a message whether you mean it to or not. Our storied, collective (and ongoing) negotiation of the color’s meaning is the subject of Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color, fashion historian Valerie Steele’s latest book. There is also an exhibition of the same name at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (where Steele is director and chief curator), a testament to how much we express with just a single shade.
A Q&A with Valerie Steele, PhD
For about 150 years in Europe and the United States, pink has been mostly seen as a feminine color, and especially from the 1950s on a feminine, girlie color. But in most of the rest of the world, especially Asia, pink was a unisex color for millennia. And increasingly in the twenty-first century, it’s seen as being not just a pretty, girlie color but also a cool, androgynous one.
Pink’s association with girls initially came from France, and the idea began to emerge in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. A key American cultural moment is in Little Women, when the character Meg has twins. Her sister Amy puts a pink ribbon on the girl and a blue one on the boy, “in the French fashion, so you can always tell” them apart, it is explained. In France it was complicated, but pink’s gender connotation is partly because it was associated with makeup, and with pink parts of the body, like lips, that were seen as feminine. And blue was seen as the royal color—only men could inherit the throne in France.
Americans didn’t really know these reasons; they initially just copied. Later in the century, they decided: Oh, we can make a lot more money by color-coding children’s clothes and toys. But at that point they got confused, and they knew the two colors were pink and blue, but they couldn’t decide which went with which sex. So half of them thought pink was for girls, and the other half thought pink was for boys.
That confusion only finally settled down in about 1930; the color binary gained significance in the 1950s with the conservative movement to push women back in the home and get them to conform to gender stereotypes. It was part of a movement to emphasize that there were rules for gender. Like, for instance, pink is for girls.
The Japanese, for example, have always loved pink. They had many different words for pink, and pink was historically worn by men as well as women.
As the Japanese gradually adopted Western clothes, it became more of a feminized color. But with the twenty-first century, Japanese young men were perfectly happy to move back into pink again. That’s a very pro-pink culture, whereas in Western Europe pink is the second-least-favorite color. In America, it’s somewhere in between, probably because we’re more diverse.
The short answer is that in Europe, color and decoration have always been associated with the ruling class. Because of the rise of both industrialism and capitalism, color—in decoration, embroidery, etc.—was redefined as being feminine. That shift was true in Europe and America and places that had been heavily colonized by the West, like Australia. It only gradually spread across the rest of the world.
In the twentieth century, pink specifically was seen by upper class as being a color that was vulgar, especially if it was worn by men. In the 1920s, when the character Jay Gatsby wears a pink suit, the other really snobby male character says, “An Oxford man! Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.” Meaning not that he was effeminate, but that he was lower class and he didn’t know that that wasn’t appropriate, so he couldn’t possibly have attended Oxford. And you see the same complaints being made against people of color, that: “Oh, they didn’t realize that men should not be wearing pink.”
If you think of the names for different shades of pink—baby pink, blush pink, Barbie pink, bordello pink, hot pink, sugar pink, shocking pink—they either tend to be very sweet and juvenile and innocent, or they tend to be overtly hypersexualized. So the tendency is to fall into one feminine stereotype or the other.
Millennial pink was named in 2016 by a reporter for New York Magazine. In the two or three years before that, you’d seen more and more pink in fashion. A lot of it tended to be this dusty pink, partly because there was a sense among a lot of young women that pink-pink was too sweet and too little girlie. Other shades of very bright pink, for example, which had been popular in the 1980s, were seen as being too vulgar and loud. So this dusty pink seemed somehow more androgynous and more modern. Simultaneously, you had a big movement starting in about 2002 among African American men wearing lots more pink, which came into the music world through hip-hop and reinforced earlier traditions of pink being an important color for men.
Of course, Schiaparelli shocking pink—we have some wonderful examples of that in our exhibition, both by Elsa Schiaparelli herself and by Bertrand Guyon, who’s now the creative director there. Christian Dior did some beautiful, beautiful pink. Yves Saint Laurent adored pink, especially a really brilliant kind of pink. In contemporary fashion, Comme des Garçons, Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino…all of them have made a point of going with a lot of pink.
Valerie Steele, PhD, is the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she has personally organized more than twenty exhibitions since 1997, including The Corset: Fashioning the Body, London Fashion, Gothic: Dark Glamour, Shoe Obsession, Daphne Guinness, A Queer History of Fashion, and Dance and Fashion. She is also the founder and editor in chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, the first peer-reviewed, scholarly journal in fashion studies, as well as a coauthor of more than twenty books.