THINK PINK (VIEWPOINT COLOUR) | Katie Treggiden Skip to content


This article was written 6 years ago.

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.

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.

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Katie Treggiden is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular — an international membership community and online learning platform for environmentally conscious designers, makers, artists and craftspeople.
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