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Everything You Think You Know About the Color Pink Is Wrong

A new exhibit at FIT explores how the rosy hue's cultural connotations came to be — and how they've evolved.
Photo: Courtesy of FIT

Photo: Courtesy of FIT

"Why is pink an unserious color?" Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT in New York, wonders aloud. The question is striking when you consider it: How are colors eventually thought of as profound or superficial? Deep and brooding or lighthearted and capricious?

The answer has less to do with how a color actually looks and more about how it is assigned a mood, value or even a binary gender based on a given cultural context — an answer divulged as part of a new exhibit, titled "PINK: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color," at the Museum at FIT.

Steele, who first began working on the exhibit concurrently with a new book by the same name two years ago, explains that the exhibition is divided into two primary parts. First, attendees are invited to explore how the color pink has evolved in the Western imagination over the last hundred years or so. Then, they're invited to challenge their perceptions.

There are extraordinary garments from Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Yves Saint Laurent that, well, colored much of contemporary fashion as we know it today, the designers experimenting with hues ranging from ballet slipper pink to Shocking, Schiaparelli's signature color. Even Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who famously derided pink in favor of the little black dress, designed little pink dresses in the 1920s.

Within the purview of how Americans and Europeans interact with the color pink is the gender assignment the color assumed over much of the 20th century. As Steele puts it: "People relied on this sense of debased Freudianism, meanwhile, the post-war backlash [of the 1950s] and women entering the workforce created and solidified traditional gender roles as we know them today."

Throughout the last century, the color pink has evoked a certain tender sexuality, the common analogy being women who wear pink are like delicate flowers — of no coincidence that flowers are the sex organs of plants. It was not encouraged that a woman past her sexual prime — that is a mature, postmenopausal woman — should wear pink (an inappropriate color for women of a certain age!) because she existed, but was no longer useful (able to bear children) in a patriarchal society.

Photo: Courtesy of FIT

Photo: Courtesy of FIT

A diorama in the exhibit explores how products marketed toward young girls are, by and large, pink, reinforcing traditional roles of femininity. Parents could — and still can and do — buy their daughters pink play stoves to pretend cook, pink doll clothes to dress their Barbies and pink tea sets for faux entertaining. (It's through this perspective that it makes sense why Victoria's Secret's sister brand, geared toward teenage shoppers, is named "PINK.")

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It isn't until the second room of the show that one is forced to confront their existing notions about the femininity of the color. In 18th century Europe, the color was reserved for the aristocratic class, an androgynous hue worn by both women — la robe à la française — and men — habit à la française. Before there were pink baby showers for girls and blue ones for boys, America was divided over which color between the two "belonged" to which gender, as documented in a Time Magazine survey around 1927.

Eventually, designers and activists would begin to challenge the conventions that made the color pink represent what it does in Western cultures today. The notion that pink is unserious is confronted with images of pussy hats donned during the Women's Marches of 2017 — an act of political protest against a newly-elected President Trump — as well as of pink triangles, originally used by Nazis to denote gay prisoners and eventually re-appropriated by gay culture to promote AIDS awareness.

Rei Kawakubo, the closest thing fashion has to a deity, challenged the notion that pink is delicate with her iconic "18th Century Punk" collection, prompting Steele to comment that, "[Kawakubo] has done the most to transform the meaning of pink" in fashion. Speaking of punk, Paul Simonon, guitarist for The Clash, is quoted as saying: "Pink is the only true rock 'n' roll color."

If you thought all-pink get-ups are reserved for the Elle Woods-types of the world, don't forget about Rihanna's Spring 2017 Fenty Puma collection, or the self-proclaimed Barbie of hip-hop, Nicki Minaj, or Cam'ron, a rapper whose legendary pink tracksuit at New York Fashion Week inspired a legion of men to begin wearing the color thereafter. 

Photo: Courtesy of FIT

Photo: Courtesy of FIT

It's not coincidental, either, that the relationship between the color pink and black celebrity are intertwined. In the 1950s, the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson purchased a custom, flamingo pink (fuchsia?) Cadillac — aka the "Hope Diamond of Harlem" — one of many examples of the color appearing in African American culture in the U.S. and throughout the African Diaspora, says Steele. 

But it wouldn't be surprising if you sooner thought of Elvis Presley's pink Cadillac, purchased around the same time as Robinson's, than the boxer's, as it's through classist and racist lenses that icons of Western culture are disseminated. "Class and racial connotations of color play themselves out differently at different times," says Steele, noting that after two years of research, she's only begun to scratch the surface of the relationship between African American people and the color pink.

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Of course, there are those who continue to capitalize on the gendered associations with the color, although "millennial pink"— the hue that dominated marketing campaigns and runways for the last few years, but is becoming passé — attempted to subvert that, says Steele. The shade, widely used by fashion, beauty and lifestyle companies alike, came as a result of the zeitgeist's increased focus on wellness (think of the "rosy glow" associated with good health), society's evolving understanding of gender and the "quietude" that comes as a reaction to a tempestuous political climate, the ever-increasing pressures of daily life and new technology. Yet, products marketed toward women remain more expensive than men's (see: "Pink tax"), which is, again, an arbitrary value assignment based on little more than tactile marketing.

So, what of it all? There's the tired cliché about seeing the world through rose-colored lenses, but it's high time to reexamine what all that means with a clear lens. "I started to see more pink in the world, and wondered what contribution I could make to understanding the history of the color," says Steele. "But I didn't expect pink would still be in fashion after completing the show and the book. Pink continues to be of new complexity. Maybe it doesn't have the charisma of black, but it sure is moving towards it."

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