How 'Tumblr Pink' Became the Most Ubiquitous Color in Fashion Branding

It's not your imagination — this dreamy hue is everywhere right now, and we got the experts to tell us why.
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It's not your imagination — this dreamy hue is everywhere right now, and we got the experts to tell us why.

You would have to be colorblind to question whether we are knee-deep in a "Rose Quartz-Everything" era. The Tumblr-favorite pastel is popping up on everything: Calvin Klein ads, Vans Old Skools, Drake's "Hotline Bling" cover art, Gucci runway shows, shopping bags and Bentley convertibles, to name just a few. It's also a trend among popular millennial-favored brands like Glossier, Everlane and Mansur Gavriel — a fact that's not exactly going unnoticed

The not-pink shade typically ranges in intensity from the more punchy pink of ballerina tutus to the muffled white-pink of cherry blossoms, existing under every cutesy moniker from salmon to blush. But how did we step into this off-pink Oz? 

The hue is enjoying a reach and staying power unusual for your average run-of-the-mill color trend. It has stained every product imaginable, been embraced by all genders (an apt illustration of fashion's ever-increasing gender-neutrality movement) and does not seem to be going anywhere fast. This color has been on trend forecasters' minds for years, and they say we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. 

For most of us, rose quartz first caught our eye in November 2015 when Pantone, fashion's chief color measurement system, announced rose quartz and serenity (a chalky sky-blue) as the colors of 2016. The dual announcement was an innovative move for Pantone, which typically only names one shade as its color of the year. "We really see the linkage of these two shades together as wellness," Laurie Pressman, VP of Pantone Color Institute, explains, citing the increased anxieties of our post-modern age. 

Photo: David Roemer

Photo: David Roemer

Each year, Pressman and her colleagues look to architecture, interiors, animation, photos, etc., to determine which color best represents the current zeitgeist. "Serenity is about the sky and dependability," says Pressman. "Rose Quartz is about the rosy glow that comes along with good health. They're also connected to this gender blurring we've been seeing over the last five years. Pink is no longer just for girls and blue for boys."

Companies choosing to use this color in their branding is helping to change the public's perception of pink, which was widely associated with the femme experience — and this makes perfect sense, since they were the ones to create the perception in the first place. As F.I.T. fashion historian Valerie Steele explains, "The idea that pink is for girls really only solidified as recently as the 1940s in the United States. Some people would say, well, maybe pink is for boys because it's a more determined color and closer to being red." According to Steele, blue was historically viewed as a feminine color because of Virgin Mary frequently being depicted as wearing the color. But, as with most things, media and commercialism changed the public's view on the matter. "I think two paintings that came into America in the early 20th century, 'Pinkie' by Lawrence and 'The Blue Boy' by Gainsborough contributed to reinforcing this commercial idea that you could sell pink to girls and blue to boys," she theorizes.

Rose quartz was steadily brewing in popularity with boys and girls long before Pantone's November announcement; it was already the color of iPhones and Acne Studios's shopping bags. But the fashion world's obsession with the soft-as-a-whisper shade appears to have skyrocketed immediately after the announcement. It began in January when the color, among a myriad of other Internet-kid pastels, was used in Diesel's Spring 2016 ad campaign. Then, around Easter, Vans and Opening Ceremony released limited-edition pink Old Skools in men's and women's sizes. GQ even went so far as to provide an official endorsement to the Timmy Turner-pink shoes. On the surface, it looks like designers simply obeyed Pantone's command — calling up their factories and shouting, "Think pink!" — but Mark Woodman, an internationally renowned color trend expert, says Pantone just has good timing.

Acne Studios packaging.

Acne Studios packaging.

"These colors are forecasted two, three years out in advance," Woodman says, explaining that it would be impossible for manufacturers and designers to wait on Pantone's "Color of the Year" announcement and have products in that shade ready in time. Woodman says he and other color trend experts have expected this rose quartz boom for a while. "It emerged in a large way in Asia-Pacific first, in 2014, under the name of 'Shim,'" he says. "I put the color on my radar specifically for a product line in June 2015, six months before any announcement by Pantone was made."

Rose quartz is not just pretty, it's also political. Kevin Lo, a graphic designer, illustrates this in his Internet-famous critique of Pantone and their "Color of the Year" selection, "The Propaganda of Pantone: Colour and Subcultural Sublimation." Rose quartz was frequently employed in femme-positive aesthetics, mainly because of the heavy connotations concerning gender, femininity, emotionality and vulnerability the color possesses. This is exactly what lured Thinx, a brand focused on creating period panties for the modern woman, to use the color in its minimalist advertisements that highlight women of varying sizes and races. "A muted pink speaks to our altering society's understanding of femininity (i.e., traditional hot pinks and baby pinks that we often see used in feminine hygiene products or "girls' toys"),” says M.Y. Nguyen, lead design strategist at Thinx, "because that's what we're doing at THINX: changing the way people think about the female experience."

In his much-shared critique, Lo accuses Pantone of removing rose quartz's deeper connotations and subordinating feminist subcultures through its selection. Lo tells Fashionista, "They took all the teeth out of what was meant as a challenge to mainstream culture and made it palatable for the mass consumption."

When asked about the criticism Pantone has faced regarding 2016's "Color of the Year" selection, Pressman defended the anthropological methods of the program, saying: "Part of what being a person in trend forecasting is about is being an astute cultural observer. There's searching through tons and tons of things in order to be able to come to our conclusion. Yes, we are mining through everything, but that's how you create a point of view."

A Glossier advertisement.

A Glossier advertisement.

Pantone does hold a lot of power over the cultural relevancy of a color and the popular opinion towards it. The best example of this is the dramatic life cycle of cerulean blue, which Pantone forecasted as the color of the millennium in 1999. The following year, the hue was featured in Oscar de la Renta's runway show as a stunning evening gown, and the color's popularity exploded — eventually trickling down from haute couture to discount bins. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the infamous example of the trickle-down effect that Meryl Streep delivers to a fashionably challenged, cerulean-wearing Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada." Evan Collins, who manages a popular online archive of Y2K fashion and imagery called "The Institute of Y2K Aesthetics," says Pantone perfectly captured Y2K's obsession with a tech-utopian future with that choice. "Cerulean blue is naturally associated with a number of motifs popular during the time," says Collins. "Think vapor, liquid, ice, gel, blobs, blue skies, spacey stainless-steel environs and 'cleanliness.'"

One day, the life cycle of rose quartz may be lectured to some fashion intern in a similar way, a historical representation of our angsty, gender-neutral zeitgeist. But don't worry—your rose quartz top (or product branding) is not going to become fashion roadkill anytime soon. Both Pressman and Woodman forecast rose quartz will keep its seat at the cool kids' table for the next two years at the very minimum. The color is part of a developing juggernaut of a trend Mark Woodman calls "quietude."

What's quietude? Just imagine the luxe sleepwear of a Disney princess and you're in the ballpark. Silk, airy trousers that could double as pajamas, pastels and sheer fabrics are all part of the emerging trend. "Lightness, sheerness, layering of these soft grays and off-whites — it's a reaction to the endless stress, screaming politicians, and technology," says Woodman. "The spring collections are really very pale. I see a pink even softer and quieter than rose quartz coming up in 2017."