Photography by Oliver Schwarzwald, commissioned by FranklinTill for Viewpoint.
“When I grew up, there were girls who liked pink and I wasn’t one of them.” So said Elle Decoration’s founding editor, Ilse Crawford in 2012. There are few colours that could elicit such deliberate distancing. In fact so loaded is pink, that it has been variously associated with femininity, homosexuality, prosperity, subversion and, of course, millennials. What is it about this rosy hue that has endowed it with such complex semiotics?
Light blue and light yellow exist as variations of the colour they derive from – and yet add white to red and you get a whole new colour. Despite red being one of the earliest colours to be named in most languages, ‘pink’ only appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1840s. Its feminisation came later – starting with children. For most of the 19th century, young children were seen as ‘sexless cherubs’ and wore white dresses or shades matched to eye colour, complexion or season. At the turn of the 20th century colours became gendered, but inconsistently: “Amy put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl” in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women of 1869; yet an 1893 article in the New York Times advised, “you should always give pink to a boy and blue to a girl.” By the 1920s, pink’s strongest association was with ‘new money’. When Tom says of Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, “An Oxford man! Like hell he is. He wears a pink suit,” he is not calling him effeminate – he is questioning his social status. It took until the 1940s for the gender ‘rules’ to be settled, and author of Pink and Blue: Telling The Boys From The Girls in America, Jo Paoletti, says it could have gone either way.
Once feminised for children, it didn’t take long to reach adults and by the 1950s, pink was big business. In 1948, after female students started wearing pink men’s shirts, Brooks Brothers launched a women’s version – it was a hit and brought female spending power into sharp focus. Newly developed plastics meant almost anything could be made in pink. The 1956 Dodge La Femme automobile was pink inside and out, and came with a pink cape, boots and handbag. Donald Featherstone’s injection-moulded flamingos of 1957 enabled the aspiring middle classes to personalise their near-identical pre-fabricated homes. But it was Mamie Eisenhower, first lady to President Dwight ‘Ike’ D Eisenhower, who really propagated pink. She recreated a pink bathroom in every military married quarters the couple lived in before her husband’s presidency. When she wore a gown studded with 2,000 pink rhinestones to his 1953 inauguration, America went mad for the colour. The White House might have been nicknamed ‘the Pink Palace,’ but of 20 million American homes built between 1945 and 1966, a quarter had at least one pink toilet. Mamie (quoted as saying, “Ike runs the country, I turn the pork chops”) was the perfect role model for women returning to homemaker roles after the Second World War.
For some women, pink disarmed the men they were challenging – after all it was in a pink Austin Healey Sprite, pink overalls and a pink crash helmet that racing driver Donna Mae Mims won 1964’s Sports Car Club of America National Championships. However, for many, their pink palaces started to feel like prisons. When Lynn Peril named her book Pink Think (presumably after the line “Now, I wouldn’t presume to tell a woman // what a woman oughtta think, // But tell her // if she’s gotta think: think pink” in the 1957 film Funny Face), she identified a code of conduct: “Pink Think assumes that there is a standard of behaviour to which all women … must adhere,” she says, dating the start of this ‘groupthink’ to the 1940s. As men returned from war and wanted their jobs back, educated women were sold the idea that the role of wife and mother was equal to a salaried job, just different. College attendance for women dropped, the average age of marriage fell, and by the end of the 1950s, American birth rates exceeded India’s. “They learnt that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights – the independence and the opportunities old-fashioned feminists fought for,” writes Betty Friedman in Feminine Mystique.
1950s icon Jane Mansfield might have claimed that “pink was my colour because it made me happy,” but even women who seemed to have it all sensed something was missing. “Each suburban woman struggled with it alone”, says Friedman. “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid even to ask of herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?’”
It’s no wonder that the next generation shunned and subverted pink. In the ‘unisex era’ of 1965-1985, second-wave feminists became parents as child development theorists recommended bright colours over pastels. Pink was out. By the mid-1970s Sears carried no pink toddlers’ clothes whatsoever. Meanwhile Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren rebranded their shop with a four-foot-high pink rubber sign reading “SEX” and Zandra Rhodes dyed her hair hot pink. More poignantly, the American gay community appropriated the downward-facing pink triangles homosexual prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps – firstly as a symbol of defiance against rising homophobia in Germany and then, turned upwards, as a precursor to red HIV and AIDS ribbons. In February 1974, The Body Politic ran a pink triangle on its cover, and Americans and Canadians began wearing them in solidarity. Recent feminist activism – from the pink pussy-hat marches after Donald Trump’s inauguration to the For All Womenkind’s logo (raised fists on a pink background) – has followed suit in reclaiming pink.
And now, of course, there is ‘millennial pink.’ Sources disagree on the exact shade – bubble-gum pink, rose gold and dusty pink are all contenders. The moment that it all started is contested too – was it Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel of 2014, Pantone’s selection of rose quartz as Colour of The Year and the rose gold iPhone 6s in 2016, or 2017’s overwhelmingly pink Milan Design Week? Even its name is unclear – Tumblr pink and Scandi pink are alternatives. Whatever the details, a whole generation has claimed – or been branded with – a colour, and that has to mean something.
Generation Y are not just shunning ‘pink for girls and blue for boys’, they are rejecting the concept of binary gender altogether. According to 2015 US survey, half of 18–34 year olds see gender on a spectrum. Institutions are responding by providing a third gender option: a ‘Mx’ alongside ‘Mr’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’, and even Oxford University’s sub fusc (clothes worn under the gown for formal events) rules now enable students of either gender to choose trousers or skirts. “Everyone, really, is non-binary,” confirms The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman. “No one’s a wholly pink butterfly or blue car onesie.” Pink has never been so popular. What started as a brave choice (see J C Penney’s ‘tough guys wear pink’ t-shirt) has become the default for those born between 1982 and 2002 – Barbara Ellen calls it “hen-party heroin for the masses”.
So much so, that the backlash has already begun. Coining the term ‘pink-washing’, Danielle Pender calls out brands for jumping on the feminism bandwagon, and says: “Surely it’s time to stop making things pretty and palatable…to stop making everything Insta-friendly, generic as fuck, boring and predictable…Let’s take a stand…Feminism is about choice.”
While it might be some time before pink becomes nothing more than pale red, as it starts to lose its gender connotations, it will evolve, enabling more wide-ranging applications – particularly in combination with other colours. The addition of brass gives it a grown-up, sophisticated edge; while alongside Pantone’s Colour of The Year 2017 ‘greenery’ (reflecting another millennial trend for houseplants and succulents), it is fresh and youthful. As it becomes more chameleon-like, pink will start to throw off the shackles of its former associations, free to take on new meanings. The only question that remains is what these might be.
Viewpoint Colour is compiled, edited and designed by Franklin Till Studio.