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Coined “the most divisive of colors,” pink has been worn very fashionably across the world since at least the eighteenth century. It is a color more fascinating and controversial than most when used for clothing, according to a recent exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. Organized by chief curator Dr. Valerie Steele, the exhibition addressed a series of themes that responded to the cultural, historical, and symbolic presence of the color in many aspects of dress. The variety of garments on display and their tonal range were striking and enhanced by the black walls of the galleries. Ranging from the palest pink, conventionally used for women’s underwear, through Elsa Schiaparelli’s “shocking pink,” the exhibits simultaneously represented and questioned our knowledge and prejudices about how pink has been worn—when, where, why, and by whom.
Staged in the museum’s two lower-level galleries, the exhibition presented in its first room a range of Euro-American fashion items dating from the 1850s to current times that explore the “Feminization of the Color.” While pink comes in many varieties, the differing forms of the garments on view indicated how the color’s associations with femininity have been reinforced by shape and decoration, the use of draping and soft folds, floral prints and bows. The visual identity as well as the “prettiness” of the color was emphasized in this gallery by the juxtaposition of a classic 1920s little black dress against pink shifts from the same period. Further on, a pair of graffitied neon pink spandex pants designed by the late Stephen Sprouse in 1985 combined with a black slashed T-shirt demonstrated the impact and irony of the color when used subculturally by punks, who apparently enjoyed the “bad taste” of wearing pink. Like black, pink has been fetishized in the popular domain and in fashion, as also shown in the second gallery with a 1994 evening dress made of black Chantilly lace and velvet worn over a pale pink satin sheath dress by the French designer Thierry Mugler.
The first room also had its share of evening wear. The centerpiece was a pale pink Ralph Lauren dress from 1999, based on a gown worn by Grace Kelly, that was shown with a photograph of Gwyneth Paltrow wearing the dress at the 71st Annual Academy Awards. The piece provided a stark visual, social, and cultural contrast with the diorama on the opposite wall that reconstructed JeongMee Yoon’s well-known photograph The Pink Project – Jeeyoo and Her Pink Things (2007). The display served as a truly overwhelming reminder of how “all things pink” are advertised to little girls. Marketing has played a significant part in the gendering of pink, as visitors learned in the next gallery, where the narrative continued by exploring “Pink vs Blue.”
While a Euro-American history of the color was presented in the first room, the second room complicated stereotyped ideas of “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” by referencing the history and acquisition of art. As visitors learned, the popular sartorial gendering of pink and blue in the United States may be associated with the purchase of two paintings. In 1921 American millionaire Henry Huntington acquired Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (1770), and then in 1927 he bought Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie (1794). Subsequently well reproduced, often as chocolate-box paintings, these two images came to serve as evidence to justify the then relatively new notion in twentieth-century America that boys should wear blue and girls should wear pink. The exhibition further speculated that fashion history may have been significantly different if Huntington had bought instead Gainsborough’s Francis Nicholls “The Pink Boy” (1782).
There is no denying, however, that pink became extremely fashionable throughout the Western world in the eighteenth century, a trend that was especially assisted by painterly depictions. François Boucher painted his nudes with rosy skin, and his portrait of the highly fashionable Madame de Pompadour (1759) shows her attired in the palest of pink gowns, the color that became known as “Rose Pompadour.” Yet as the garments in the center of the gallery attested, fashionable women and men both wore pink during the era. Despite this dual male and female disposition toward the color, the show successfully pointed out how cosmetics and painting nevertheless created the idea of an eroticized pink femininity, so much so that even 250 years later Madame de Pompadour has been celebrated by Cindy Sherman with (pink) Sèvres porcelain, and Dior named a nail polish “Pink Pompadour.”
Pink is not just equated with fashion in Western countries. The exhibition quite properly examined the color through a wider cultural lens by including men’s garments, such as a suit from India in light pink, a deep-pink cloak from Morocco, and a Spanish bullfighter’s cape. The wearing of pink in India by men and women was so ubiquitous that Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland allegedly commented in the 1950s that “pink is the navy blue of India.” In the twenty-first century, pink took a more powerful cultural turn in India when it became associated with women’s rights. For instance, Amana Fontanella-Khan documents an all-female vigilante group who fight injustice against women in her book Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India (2013).
Japan has also had a long association with pink. While textiles have been dyed pink in Japan since the eighth century, the exhibition focused on the color’s more contemporary adoption in fashion at the end of the twentieth century. It was embraced by the Japanese girl culture and especially by members of the Lolita subculture—whose members wear doll-like styles—represented in the exhibition by a full-skirted, frilly, “cute” pink design from the brand Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (2009). Similarly striking was an ensemble from Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons’ Biker/Ballerina collection (2005), which combines a black leather biker jacket with a pale pink gingham, tutu-esque skirt. Kawakubo’s “subversive” use of pink was also illustrated by a piece from her 18th-Century Punk collection (2016). Here the wide pannier skirt shape, fashionable in the mid-eighteenth century, is translated into pleather and rubber oversize ruffles that fall from the shoulders to the ankles, creating an armor-like appearance, both protective and challenging.
Pink, it was noted in the exhibition and catalogue texts, has perpetually been reclaimed and had its meanings reinscribed through fashion, and not just via the catwalk and glossy magazines. The exhibition also explored the role of pink in popular music for both women and men: the Jean Paul Gaultier bustier Madonna wore on her Blond Ambition tour (1990) and Rihanna’s Fenty Puma collaboration (2017) were showcased. But pink, the exhibition showed, has been worn powerfully by male performers too, from Elvis Presley to black hip-hop stars sporting pink hoodies, polo shirts, fur jackets, and even pink diamonds.
Pink is also associated with the LGBTQ community and with queer sexuality. A simple black T-shirt bearing a pink triangle and the slogan “Silence = Death” drew attention to the use of the pink triangle in Nazi concentration camps to identify gay men. In 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) adopted this one-time sign of repression as a marker of gay activism.
Adjacent to the T-shirt was displayed another powerful and topical political sartorial sign, so modest in its form and size that it was easy to miss: the “pussy hat” worn by thousands for the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017. While some had cautioned against choosing pink for fear of trivializing the seriousness of the underlying issues, the scale of the protest allowed activists to reclaim pink as a symbol of feminine power. In fact since 2013, pink has become increasingly used as a color of protest and has actually become less associated with femininity than with gender neutrality, according to a representative of the Pantone Color Institute. This was reinforced in 2014 when the Color Marketing Group forecast that a deep pink-beige called Shim (she/him) would emerge as the color of 2016 (93).
The changing nature of pink in fashion was summed up in the final section of the exhibition. “Millennial pink” originated in 2014 as fashion designs for women and men became more gender-fluid. This was shown by the last two outfits in the exhibition, a draped crepe dress in a color named “Lipstick Fluid” from Céline’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection and a pink men’s suit in polyester, cotton, nylon, and spandex designed by Raf Simons for Jil Sander (2011).
While fashion journalists declared millennial pink “dead” by 2017, the exhibition indicated how the use of pink has transcended such fashion trends to have an intriguing and complex history over the last 150 years. Not simply “pretty,” pink has also been punk, as well as increasingly powerful as a political marker amid sartorial style. The exhibition uncovered how the symbolism and significance of pink has varied across time and cultures, challenging its relatively recent gendered associations in Western culture. The supporting volume reveals that the Japanese language had a word for pink (momo) by about 750 CE (12), and the renowned Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) produced sculptures of women dressed in pink with rouged cheeks. Such historical and cross-cultural details prove a valuable reminder of how fashion has signaled—and does signal—change, and how the aesthetics of garments always reflect a given period or place and their customs and practices.
Professor of Design Studies and Fashion Studies, Parsons School of Design, The New School, New York