Think pink

Zandra Rhodes, ensemble, 1978, England, Museum Purchase. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.
From propriety to punk to protests, pink is pretty complicated.

It is at once cool and warm, demure and erotic, lighthearted and deadly serious — the stuff of birthday cakes, ballerinas and Barbie dolls as well as breast cancer awareness, the protest punk band Pussy Riot and the political Pussyhat Project.

No wonder,, a culture/style website, pronounced pink “the most divisive of colors.”

“Please, sisters, back away from the pink,” Petula Dvorak exhorted would-be protesters who planned to don pink pussy hats for the Women’s March last year, fearing that the hats and the bright color would trivialize the challenges women face in the new political climate.

But march they did in hats that ranged in color from pale to shocking pink, creating from a distance a spring canvas in the dead of winter. Unintentionally, they were channeling the optimistic, defiant attitude of the woman who once told 19th-century color theorist Charles Blanc:  “It is still possible to dream in a sky-blue bonnet, but it is absolutely forbidden to weep in a pink one.”

Cheery, resilient even, underrated and subversively persuasive, pink entices and endures by defying category — which makes it the perfect subject for one of those provocative exhibits at The Museum at FIT as well as a delicious companion book from Thames & Hudson.

“Pink:  The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color,” at the museum Sept. 7 through Jan. 5, includes some 80 ensembles from the 18th century to the present, featuring the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Alessandro Michele of Gucci, Jeremy Scott of Moschino and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. They are displayed in two sections — one a survey of about 35 examples of traditionally feminine pink clothes from the mid-19th through 20th centuries; the other a thematic approach exploring pink’s role in non-Western cultures, eroticism, gender identity, pop music and social and political protest.

Moschino, Spring/Summer 2015. Courtesy Moschino.

These galleries speak to the dual, multifaceted, ambiguous nature of pink that has made it a subject of fascination as well as ambivalence, controversy and even repulsion.

“Although humans in every culture are biologically equipped to see pink things (such as flowers), many languages, including Latin and ancient Greek, do not have a word for ‘pink,’” museum director and exhibit curator Valerie Steele writes in the companion book, which she also edited. “Indeed, linguists say pink is among the least common color terms.”

In the Far East, however, pink has long been a welcome presence — particularly in Japan, the land of Hello Kitty, and India, the latter prompting onetime Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland to observe famously that “pink is the navy blue of India.”

It was the East that would provide the natural products for Italian artisans to create new dyes, ushering in an increased use of pink in aristocratic Western clothing in the late Middle Ages. That use reached a zenith at the royal court in 18th-century France with Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, championing all things pink, including the gowns she wore for her portraits by François Boucher and the “Rose Pompadour” color created by the Sèvres porcelain factory. 

Pink was so popular that it was worn at court by men and women alike. But in the next century, pink and other vibrant colors would become increasingly associated with the female sex and femininity as men’s attire turned to somber hues — “a significant historical development,” Steele writes, related to the rise of industrialization and the bourgeoisie and their emphasis on gender differences, particularly where the division of labor was concerned. 

Rules cannot be hard and fast, however, where a seductive little creature like pink is concerned. In the early 20th century, retailers began touting pink, which they considered a stronger, masculine color, for boy babies and blue for girls. (It wasn’t until around the 1940s that the opposite custom was established.) Soldiers returning from the horrors of World War I were encouraged to brighten up with pink shirts. Soon, though, pink would take on qualities not everyone approved of. Mass production would lead to garish pinks and an association of with cheapness and superficiality. Artists and designers would begin exploring pink’s relationship to the color of nipples and genitalia. Pink would become erotic and even louche.

By the mid-20th century, pink had developed a duality that would explode into cultural complexity. On-screen and in the White House — where first lady Mamie Eisenhower presided over “the Pink Palace,” as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. became known — pink was traditional and ladylike. Elsewhere, it was becoming revolutionary. In the second half of the century, pink would be associated with everyone from pop stars to minorities seeking to have their individual voices heard, from breast cancer awareness advocates to protesters.

Sometimes, the color has been turned on others. “Pinko” was coined in 1925 as a derisive term for a communist sympathizer. During World War II, the Nazis interred suspected homosexuals, forcing them to wear pink triangles — which the gay community would later co-opt as a symbol of its empowerment. During his tenure (1998-2016), Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, made prisoners parade in pink boxer shorts, which he later accessorized with pink socks, linens and handcuffs. Shamed, one prisoner committed suicide.

For many, however, pink’s rich history has led to healing. Next month, the color will be emblazoned on ribbons and sports uniforms in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month — a campaign launched in 1991 by Self magazine and the Estée Lauder cosmetics company. Though some worry about the pink commodification of breast cancer, its pink ribbon is a reminder that, “It is society that ‘makes’ color, defines it, gives it meaning,” in the words of color historian Michel Pastoureau.

And that society has given many meanings to pink, most of them inspiring.

“Why would anyone pick blue over pink?” rapper Kanye West is quoted as saying in the “Pink” companion book. “Pink is obviously the better color.”

“Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color” is on view Sept. 7 through Jan. 5 at the Museum at FIT in Manhattan. The book of the same name ($50, 208 pages, 120 color illustrations) will be published by Thames & Hudson Sept. 4. There will be a free symposium on the subject Oct. 19. For more, visit and

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