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The fashion history of a divisive colour

In the pink: the fashion history of a divisive colour

An exhibition in New York takes us from 18th-century dresses to the pussy hat

An exhibition in New York takes us from 18th-century dresses to the pussy hat

Emily Bobrow | September 20th 2018

As a young girl, I loved pink. It was the colour of Barbie and cotton candy, pretty and sweet. It was special and uniquely feminine. It was girliness distilled in a single hue. But my fondness soon become an aversion, and largely for the same reasons. Pink seemed frilly and frivolous, the stuff of childhood. It is not a colour that people take seriously, even when it is bold. Although it is visible in nature, in flowers and fruits, pink somehow looks synthetic, as man-made as bubble-gum. When I discovered last year that I was pregnant with a boy, I found myself a little relieved to be spared a sudden glut of pink clothes and toys.   

I don’t have complicated relationships with other colours. I am not a huge fan of orange, but I can’t exactly explain why. Pink, however, gets under my skin. And it seems I’m not alone. In America it has been called “the most divisive of colors”. Only 2% of respondents to a French poll said pink was their favourite shade, while 17% said it was their least favourite. Some even doubt that it qualifies as a real colour. According to Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (FIT), a surprising number of books about colour do not even mention pink.

Pink’s symbolic heft and power to provoke make it a fine subject for a new exhibition of fashion across history. “Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color”, on view at the Museum at FIT until January 5th, includes around 80 ensembles spanning several hundred years, from a stiff-looking dress from the 18th-century (when the colour was worn by men and women) to a pink pussy hat, the preferred headwear at the Women’s March in 2017. Although I came away with my antipathy broadly intact, I am more aware of just how much this is a result of the colour’s fairly recent social and cultural associations. Even pink-haters will enjoy this celebration of the colour in all its guises: coquettish, bold, sexy, girlish, conventional, potent, ironic and unignorable. As the fashion designer Mary Quant once observed, “If you want to go unnoticed in a crowd, don’t wear pink.”

 

 

 

Corset, America (1880s)

Until the late 19th century, the undergarments of respectable women were white. Colourful corsets and petticoats, with their more overt sex appeal, were the preserve of actresses, courtesans and prostitutes. Pink underwear was seen as especially risqué, as it evoked the creamy shade of Caucasian flesh. In “Au Bonheur des dames”, Emile Zola describes a lingerie display in a department store as looking “as if a group of pretty girls had undressed, piece by piece, down to the satin nudity of their skin.” The composer Richard Wagner had an uncommon affection for pale pink satin, and lined quite a bit of his clothing in the material.

By the turn of the 20th century it was common for women to wear underwear in shades of pale pink and blue. But a pale pink corset have an erotic charge, as Madonna demonstrated with the cone-cupped bustier she wore for her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.

 

Charles James, silk organza and satin “La Sylphide” debutante dress with grosgrain ribbon and silk flowers (1937)

The English word “pink” appears to have its roots in a species of flowers called “pinks”. It described a colour as early as the 17th century – around the same time that “rose” was first used to describe a paler red in France. Steele notes that young, beautiful women are often compared to flowers, which implies that a woman’s physical appeal is just as fleeting. The fact that flowers are the reproductive organs of plants – and often look the part, as Georgia O’Keefe evocatively illustrated – only serves to enhance the sexiness of the colour pink.

Charles James, a British-born designer who came to be known as “America’s first couturier”, was renowned for his mathematically precise and sculptural clothes which shaped and enhanced the natural curves of a woman’s body. Although he had a reputation for being a visionary, he was also known for being arrogant, obnoxious and bad with money. He spent his final years fighting poverty before dying in the Chelsea Hotel in 1978.

 

Zandra Rhodes, rayon jersey ensemble with metal, faux pearls, and rhinestones (1978)

“Pink is the only true rock-and-roll colour,” said Paul Simonon, bass guitarist for the Clash. Elvis Presley preferred a flamingo-ready hue for some early jackets, a few bedazzled jumpsuits and his classic Cadillac (which was specially painted in what would become known as “Elvis Rose”). The Beatles went for hot pink in their Sgt. Pepper get-ups. But the invention of fluorescent colours in the 1970s brought a new generation of fans. Punks especially enjoyed the “bad taste” of “ultra” pink. the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, X-Ray Spex, and the Jesus and Mary Chain all used the colour on their album covers. 

Pierpaolo Piccioli, Valentino’s creative director, has emblazoned the phrase “Pink is Punk” on a line of successful T-shirts and jumpers. The dress here is from the well-known “punk” collection of Zandra Rhodes, an English designer known for her ultra-pink hair. 

 

Raf Simons for Jil Sander, man’s suit, polyester, cotton, nylon, spandex (2011)

The notion that pink is somehow feminine is fairly recent. In the 18th century the colour was seen as elegant and aristocratic for both sexes. By the 19th century European and American men had abandoned bright and pastel colours for more sober shades, but pink was not yet seen as feminine. At the turn of the 20th century, most infants’ clothing was white and children wore a variety of colours. 

As the century wore on, parents were encouraged to use colour to reinforce gender differences, but there was initially little consensus over which to use. Jo B. Paoletti’s book, “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America”, quotes a trade magazine for clothes manufacturers, which in 1918 stated that “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” 

By the 1920s, however, it became more common to assign pink to girls and blue to boys. As views on essential gender differences gained strength in the 1950s, mothers were told to dress their children in these colours so that family and friends could help reinforce traditional gender expectations from an early age.

Pink was never totally out of fashion for men. Brooks Brothers introduced a pink shirt in the early 20th century that became popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, and then again in the 1970s and ‘80s, when “preppy” style caught on. But Steele credits the rapper Cam’ron, who wore pink mink to New York Fashion Week in 2002, with bringing men back to pink. The colour appears to pose an enticing challenge, tempting men to prove that they are confident enough to wear it. As Kanye West once mused: “Why would anyone pick blue over pink?”

 

Anita Holmquist, acrylic knit “Pussy hat” worn at the Women’s March in New York (2017)

The use of pink in marginalising and sometimes subjugating people makes it an appealing colour to appropriate for more subversive causes and behaviour. For example, the men and women who made up the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the 1980s adopted as their logo a hot pink triangle with the words SILENCE = DEATH. The triangle was a reference to the pink symbol the Nazis used to identify and persecute homosexual men.

On January 21st 2017, a day after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Washington, DC and around the world wearing so-called “pussy hats” in a similar act of defiance. Although Petula Dvorak, a columnist for the Washington Post, worried that the “cute and fun” hats would ensure the event was remembered “as an unruly river of Pepto-Bismol roiling through the streets of the capital rather than a long overdue civil-rights march”, the hats in fact created a potent visual effect. That a colour that is often used to signify submissiveness had become such a unifying symbol of collective female resistance was electrifying.

Pink: the History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color The Museum at FIT until January 5th