At Large  February 11, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

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-twentieth century, Westerners viewed the color as either genderless or masculine. You may be surprised to discover the extent to which pink, as its meaning has evolved, remains a sort of mirror image of the broader cultural changes happening in society.

Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV whose favorite color was pink, is said to have first made the color widely popular. The Sèvres porcelain company, also beloved by Madame de Pompadour, created and named a shade of pink after her. Their fine porcelain was a prized status symbol in the eighteenth century and this rich hue of pink came to be associated with the opulence of the royal court and all its trappings. Even so, it was not yet associated with a particular gender. 

wikimedia commons

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

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 percent 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.

Chart of prisoner markings used in German concentration camps. Dachau, Germany, c. 1938-1942.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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

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

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

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 those they deemed “sexual criminals.” This included homosexual men, bisexual men, and transgender women.

The Nazi’s use of pink did not become widespread public knowledge until the 1970s, when the pink triangle was reclaimed by gay rights activists. While this was after the color had become an established feminine signifier in the Western zeitgeist (most historians agree this happened before the 1950s), it is not unlikely that this re-emergence of the pink triangle made the color more taboo for men, possibly exacerbating its gendered use.

"Rock Against Reagan" tank top, purchased on July 19, 1984. Smithsonian Institute. National Museum of American History.

Interesting side note: As the gay rights movement took off, many early punk groups adopted similar shades of pink. The Sex Pistols, whose lead Johnny Rotten remains notoriously homophobically-minded, used this neon shade prolifically—a tidbit that exemplifies the often frustratingly fluid nature of culture and history.

National Portrait Gallery

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

Back to the earliest accounts of pink as a strictly feminine color: Historians believe this began as part of a post-World War II effort to reestablish traditional, Western gender roles. As women were pushed out of the 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.

This trend did not extend to baby clothes until the 1980s, when the ultrasound of fetal sex identification became the norm. Parents were suddenly able to shop for a baby boy or girl specifically and industries responded to this marketing opportunity in full force.

Over the last thirty years, the degree of association between classic femininity and pink has remained in flux.

In the ‘90s and early 2000s, certain toy-store aisles became entirely hot pink while a more dusty, subtle shade—posthumously termed Millennial Pink—dominated women’s fashion. Even now, pink balloons, smoke, or confetti seem to explode daily from various containers at gender reveal parties.

Pantone

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

And yet, pink has managed to outgrow the most restrictive definitions of female identity, forging a reputation as a signifier of femininity with fathomless range.

The trans flag, designed by Navy veteran Monica Helms in 1999, features pastel pink stripes to underscore the gender identity of trans women. A different, yet equally specific, shade of pink came to signify strength in the face of breast cancer and yet another just recently emerged as a sort of mascot for the 2017 Women’s March.

Monica Helms’ Miniature Transgender Pride flag. Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.

In a fun twist, a slightly evolved Millennial Pink regained popularity as a gender-neutral mainstay for everything from furniture to product packaging. And, with a flair clearly rooted in the confusing overlap of 70s punk and the early gay rights movement, it is not unusual to see modern roller derby groups feature the most violent shades of pink on their skates or in team buttons.

Pussyhat made and worn by Judy Bazis, 2017. Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.

Pussyhat made and worn by Judy Bazis, 2017. Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.

A homemade poster used in the January 21, 2017 Women's March in Washington, DC. Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.

A homemade poster used in the January 21, 2017 Women's March in Washington, DC. Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.

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 Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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