The Color Pink: A Cultural History

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Doll’s dress in two parts, late 18th Century. Silk taffeta.

Few colors are as politically charged as pink. Though today it is considered feminine throughout much of the world, up until around the mid-20th century, Westerners viewed the color as either genderless or masculine. The way the changing meanings behind this color reflect broader cultural changes may surprise you.

wikimedia commons

Sèvres Pompadour pink elephant vase with candleholders, c. 1760.

Pink first rose to prominence as the favored color of Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV. A specific shade of the color was created and named for her by the Sèvres porcelain company, who enjoyed her favor. Their fine porcelain was a prized status symbol in the 18th century, and this rich hue of pink came to be associated with the opulence of the royal court and all its trappings, though it was not assigned to a particular gender. 

wikimedia commons, Honolulu museum of art

American School, Young Boy with Whip, c. 1840.

In a 1927 issue, Time Magazine printed a survey of several U.S. stores on gender-appropriate colors. The results were nearly split, with 60% ascribing pink to boys. During this period, it was not unusual for fashion and department store editorials to run stories on colors and how they should be used. Some described pink as a shade of red, arguing it was fundamentally masculine and therefore best suited for baby boys—especially when the only other option is blue, a gentle color and symbol of virginity. Other publications recommended blue-eyed babies be swaddled in blue because it is flattering and still others proclaimed brunettes looked best in pink. 

While no conclusive reason for the shift has been settled upon by historians, there are a few interesting historical events that might have played a role in the change or, at the very least, helped shape our modern understanding and use of the color.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Chart of prisoner markings used in German concentration camps. Dachau, Germany, c. 1938-1942.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis created a system of markings to identify the different populations that were eventually taken into concentration camps. The pink triangle was assigned to sexual criminals, which included homosexual men, bisexual men, and transgender women. The Nazi’s use of the pink triangle did not become public knowledge until the 1970s when the symbol was reclaimed by gay rights activists. Still, it is not unlikely that the re-emergence of the pink triangle made the color more taboo for men, exacerbating its gendered use.

wikimedia commons

Advertisement for 'The Silence = Death Project' used by ACT-UP, The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Color lithograph, 1987.

According to most historians, by the 1950s pink had been solidified as a female color. Many believe pink began to be assigned to women as part of a post-World War II effort to reestablish traditional, Western gender roles. As women were pushed out of workforce and back into the home, advertisers sought to refeminize them. The ideal housewife was now depicted dressed in frilly, colorful clothing, while men’s fashion became simple and neutral, reflecting the uniforms of their recent military service.

National Portrait Gallery

Woodbury Cold Cream ad featuring Rita Hayworth, c. 1945.

Interestingly, this trend did not extend to baby-clothes until the 1980s. In this era, ultrasound fetal sex identification became the norm. As such, parents were suddenly able to shop for a baby boy or a girl specifically and the market responded. 

Over the last thirty years, the degree of association between femininity and pink has both grown, shrunk, and evolved. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, toy-store aisles that featured toys for girls became entirely pink. Pink or blue balloons have exploded from boxes at gender reveal parties. But a the same time, much as pink was reclaimed by gay rights activists in the ‘70s, pink has recently become a symbol of feminine power and strength. Signifying the strength of breast cancer survivors, or worn with pride as fuschia knitted “pussyhats” at the 2017 Women’s March, pink is shedding its association with frivolous femininity and forging a new identity as the proud and powerful feminine.

flickr/Liz Lemon

A sea of pink pussyhats at the 2017 Women's March in Washington, DC.

In recent years as identity politics have gained mainstream attention, gender roles have begun to break down. While the color is still considered feminine, its use is not necessarily limited to women and girls. In more liberal communities, boys are allowed to embrace their feminine sides if they wish to and girls are free to reject it. Once a stand-in for all things feminine, pink is now acceptably used more broadly, as seen in the popularity of Millennial Pink, a dusty, subtle shade, which became ubiquitous in the 2010s, and is now a gender-neutral mainstay for everything from furniture and decor to clothing and product packaging.

Pantone

Rose Quartz, Pantone's 2016 Color of the Year, also known as Millennial Pink.

Whatever your taste in art or clothing, there is a shade of pink for you, and a political (or apolitical) statement to go along with it as this charged color continues to evolve with our ever-changing culture.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is a writer and artist living in North Carolina. She is trained in Art History and Creative Writing and is interested in the 18th-century and colonial South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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