Make it Pink!

A couple of years ago my husband and I printed t-shirts for our nieces and nephews for Christmas, each shirt was different and the one which we made for Kitty – who was three at the time – had a pink alien printed on it. The first thing she said when she opened her parcel was “it’s pink!”, an affirmation of how much pink appeals to little girls…but has it always been like this? This week I would like to explore the changing relationship which the West has had with the colour Pink from the Renaissance up to today.

Personally, I love the colour pink, not because it is girly or feminine, but because with its vast range of tones, from the softest blush to the most shocking of hot pinks it is a colour which evokes an incredible variety of emotions. In English, the name comes from the common name for the flower “Dianthus”, also known as carnations, the serrated edges of the petals are also the origin or the term “pinking” meaning to cut a zig-zag edge. In most other European languages the colour shares its name with another flower, the rose. Notwithstanding its flowery name, the colour pink has not always been considered especially feminine; as a diminutive of red, it has been traditionally associated with passion, blood, power and eroticism as much as sweetness and frivolity.

From the Middle Ages right through to the middle of the 19th century red, and consequently pink, came from natural sources and while there are a variety of plants which produce natural pink dyes, in Europe, the really vibrant pinks were originally produced with kermes, a small insect native to the Mediterranean region and then from the times of the Spanish Conquistadores at the end of the 15th century, with Mexican cochineal (another insect which produces a higher concentration of dye) and later with Brazil wood - just a side note about Brazil wood, the dye comes from the heart wood of this tropical tree, and as a commodity it was so important that the country is actually named after the wood, not the other way around! Due to the value of the dyestuffs of the wearing of red and pink clothes was a privilege which denoted status, wealth and power.

Early in the Christian world there doesn’t seem to have been a particular association between pink and girls, if anything there has been a long-standing correlation between the colour blue and femininity as it was the colour of the Virgin Mary. It isn’t uncommon to see images of the Madonna wearing a red or pink dress covered by a blue cape or veil as can be seen in this Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini which can be found in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. The curious thing, however is that when we begin to look for Renaissance portraits of people dressed in Pink there are not actually that many, and for every woman dressed in Pink, there is also a gentleman who has chosen this rosy hue. In Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Lady in Pink, dating from the late 16th century we see a noblewoman who could just as easily be dressed in red, white or any other colour, then when seen beside Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Gentleman in Pink, dating 1560, it is clear that the colour pink has not yet acquired any gender bias, rather it is used as a variation on red.

Moving into the 17th century and the Baroque we see a greater variety of pastel colours in use and this includes various shades of pink. This delicate palette of pastels were considered becoming for women, as seen in this Portrait of a Lady by Jan Mytens dating from the 1660s, but also for men, and not in an effeminate way; in Johannes Verspronck’s Andries Stilte as Standard Bearer from 1640 we see a man dressed for an important role and his costume is rich, trimmed with silver lace and topped off with a remarkable hat, he is over the top but also masculine in the martial, Three Muskateers way which defined male dress in the first half of the 17th century.

During the 18th century the fashion for pastels became stronger for both men and women and pink was particularly popular. In this portrait of Mary, Countess Howe by Thomas Gainsborough (1764) we have a fine example the softness which was so sought after by ladies of the period with metres of pink satin and lace ruffles flowing from her sleeves. This same lightness was popular for men and pink clothing was very common among fashionable men as seen in this portrait of Joseph Marie Vien the last official painter to the court of Louis XVI, painted in 1784 by Joseph Siffred Duplessis. It is also interesting to also note literary references to the importance of pink in the Rococo palette; Xavier de Maistre in his book A Journey Around my Room published in 1794 about a period of 6 weeks which he spent imprisoned in his room due to a dual, he advises “any man who can do so to have a pink-and-white bed, for these are colours to induce calm and pleasant reveries in the fragile sleeper” It must also be noted that his uniform for this epic journey was his favourite pair of pink and blue pyjamas.

Roberto Calasso in his fascinating book Tiepolo Pink gives great importance to both the painter and this most delicious shade of pink (which can be seen in this Allegory with Venus and Time in the National Gallery, London) when he exclaims, "Tiepolo: the last breath of happiness in Europe," which, while not exactly true, does symbolize a period of profound cultural change. With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 we see a dramatic shift in fashion, a preference for demure, Neoclassical lines and colours. This period marks the beginning of a time of sober colours for menswear which would remain more or less unchanged for nearly two centuries. From a vast palette of colours menswear is reigned in to include colours like beige, brown, black, navy, grey and military red. It marked the end of a period of carefree frivolity for the nobility and the placement of a new set of national values which would spread across Western Europe under Napoleon.

So as we continue on our quest to see when it is that Pink became a specifically feminine colour, for the next little while we must examine children’s costumes because men’s dress becomes much less colourful. The illustrations of Kate Greenaway provide insight into children’s dress (even though she had a particular style which was inspired by costumes half a century earlier), we see very clearly that pastels were considered appropriate for both sexes and that these were not limited to pink and blue; including pistachio greens, buttery yellows and peachy tones as well. In this illustration from Under the Window published in 1879 we see that for each girl that is dressed in pink there is one in blue and for each boy which is dressed in blue, there is one in pink. These soft pastel tones are more representative of youth than gender. Although there is a hint that such a tendency was forming in Europe in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when Amy, who has been in France brings gifts for Margaret’s twins, the girl’s present with a pink ribbon and the boy’s with a blue ribbon.

During the 19th century we do see some use of colour in menswear in the form of cravats and waistcoats, however the general trend remains subdued. What we do see in the second half of the century is an explosion of colour in women’s dress as seen in this 1872 fashion plate from Godey’s Lady’s Book. The dresses featured a remarkably feminine, full of frills and bows, but the range of colours is bolder and more modern thanks to the invention of aniline dyes in the middle of the century. The second half of the 19th century sees women’s fashion explode with new, synthetic colours such as mauve.

It is, however, in the 20th century that we see a series of growing trends specifically around the colour pink. During the period between the wars we see a number of important changes in fashion which merit their own blog post, so to keep on the pink trail we pass to a famous character who was fond of pink; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. In the 1925 novel the extravagant and wealthy Gatsby shows up at the home of his beloved Daisy and her well to do husband Tom Buchanan wearing a pink suit, a choice which causes Tom to scoff that Gatsby couldn’t possibly be an “Oxford Man” as he claimed, saying “like hell he is! He wears a pink suit!”. His statement probably has little to do with the meanings which we might attach to the colour today, instead it would probably have been a statement about social class as the suit was possibly made with pink seersucker, a fabric traditionally worn by the help which is actually very comfortable in the Summer heat. Such suits, which were introduced by companies like Haspel, were actually a really new idea, placing men’s comfort above formality and therefore underlining the difference between Buchannan’s old money ideals and Gatsby’s new money freedom. In the two films made of this story we see the pink suit rendered in a very dapper way; first by Ralph Lauren in 1974 for Robert Redford and then by Catherine Martin in 2013 for Leonardo di Caprio.

Just over a decade later, in 1936, the Italian Surrealist designer, Elsa Schiaparelli launched her perfume Shocking, which was not just the name of the perfume but also of the shade of hot pink which was used to package and market the perfume. The legendary packaging was created by the Argentinian artist and designer Leonor Fini and the bottle was based on the figure of Mae West and decorated with flowers inspired by Salvador Dali’s Flower Sellers. The colour would go on to become Schiaparelli’s signature shade and while it was launched as a feminine colour it was for a modern and independent woman. Schiaparelli described the colour as being “Life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a colour of China and Peru but not of the West”, and this resonates perfectly with her innovative, collaborative and thoroughly artistic approach to design.

During WWII there was a decline in the avant-garde movement in fashion, fabric, like food, was subject to rationing, and both men and women found themselves in uniform again. During the difficult, dark years of the war the colour pink also took on a new meaning; pink triangles were used as badges to label homosexual prisoners in the Nazi work camps as you can see on this uniform. The pink triangle has been reinterpreted to become a symbol of the gay rights movement and is still used today as a really strong reminder of the fight to obtain equal rights and recognition of the gay community within society.

During the second World War not only did more women get involved in the military than ever before, but also on the home front there were many organisations which used woman power to keep things moving, particularly in the case of factories (for arms, parachutes etc.) and agriculture. This had a major impact on the way women dressed; firstly, we see many women wearing trousers and overalls which were more practical for their new roles, and we also see women in working blues and army uniforms which lead to the creation of an image of the strong, useful woman who was contributing to the war effort from home as can be seen in the "Woman Ordnance Worker" posters created by Adolph Treidler in the early 40s. We see an image of a gutsy woman in her working blues and red and white bandanna, the poster also includes a series of hats which represent the different roles which women were filling. In contrast to this we see the New Look by Christian Dior which was launched in 1947 – this particular photo is by Robert Capa and is from 1948 – which reverts back to a genteel idea of femininity; high heels, elegant gloves, big hats, huge skirts… all things which went against the notions of practicality and rationing which had been so present during the war. This particular dress was a very delicate shade of pink and hinted to the changes which were on their way.

During the fifties we see a return of pastel colours, including pink! As with the Rococo period these colours represent times of happiness and prosperity. An interesting thing which we see in the 1950s is the introduction of multicolour pastel tea sets, or sets of drinking glasses, this was a way of bringing the individual back to the forefront, no longer did everyone have to accept the standard issue allowed under rationing, but they could choose based on their personal preferences. This was one of the subtle ways in which Western society began to train a new generation of consumers who would go from choosing to have the pink or minty green place setting a tea party to being able to “choose” a whole house full of accessories for themselves to build their own identity in an increasingly gendered marketplace.

In the 1953 film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we see what is probably the most iconic pink dress of all time, created for the Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number. This song and its accompanying choreography and costumes do present a strongly gendered feminine image, Marilyn Monroe is far from subservient, in the first half she is the desire of the young men who dance around her and in the second half she is surrounded by a flurry of young women all dressed in pink for whom she is a kind of role model. In this film Marilyn Monroe represents a new kind of modern woman; she knows what she wants and yet retains a rather capricious, and slightly spoilt quality at the same time and above all she knows how to use her feminine charms to obtain what she wants.

The development of the Disney Princess aesthetic during this period is also quite telling. In 1937’s Snow White we see a princess who is still quite child-like, a character with whom little girls could identify quite easily, she has short, dark hair and wears a yellow and blue dress which is a charming 1930s interpretation of what a Renaissance princess might have worn. By 1950, when Cinderella was released something had changed, Cinderella was a more grown up princess and the story involves a transformation from a girl to an elegant woman. In 1959 with the release of Sleeping Beauty we can see a further evolution of this commercial princess role. But back to Cinderella for a moment, it is interesting to note that when her friends, the mice, create a dress for her to go to the ball it is not only in line with the feminine ideals of Dior’s New Look, with a tiny waist, full skirt and big bows, but it is also pink. However, when Cinderella shows her stepmother and stepsisters that she is ready to go to the ball, they rip the dress apart and go off to the ball leaving her behind, alone and sad. With the appearance of her Fairy Godmother, Cinderella is then transformed into the ultimate fairy-tale princess complete with glass slippers, an elegant up-do and long gloves…all in blue! This clearly shows that the association of the colour pink with feminine prettiness is still not fixed in the public’s mind as the norm, instead we see the continuation of light blue for girls which is somehow magical ethereal like the sky. By the time Sleeping Beauty was released nine years later, there had been a further shift towards pinkness as being part of the image of a perfect princess, indeed the blue fairy and the red fairy argue about it which colour to make the dress as you can see in this clip. The compromise which was eventually reached was not a purple dress, but rather a magical gown which could be either pink or blue and at the time the film was released Aurora (the Sleeping Beauty) was depicted equally in both colours, the preference for Aurora’s pink dress on Disney merchandise is relatively recent and has almost entirely eclipsed the blue gown.

The more grown up Disney princesses shown in Cinderella and then in Sleeping Beauty were accompanied by change in toys made for little girls. In the late 50s Ruth Handler noticed that her daughter Barbara preferred playing with fashion paper dolls that were more like teenage or grown up women, she went on to design a new doll with the persona of a teen fashion model by the name of Barbie. The first Barbie dolls were released in 1959 wearing a black and white zebra print swimming costume and was available in both a blonde and brunette version. While there was some pink in the original packaging the main focus was on fashion and Barbie’s perfect wardrobe closely followed the latest trends, her beautiful clothes (in the early years) being hand sewn by Japanese homeworkers. As the first toy to be marketed exclusively using television the evolution of Barbie closely follows the evolution of the female consumer; the little girl is no longer the owner of a simple doll, but of a kind of friend who needs to keep up with the latest fashions and needs to acquire new accessories, and this has been an incredibly effective tool for training female consumers from an early age and would eventually become one of the primary vehicles for spreading the preference for pink among young girls.

During the 60s the rise of feminism and the sexual revolution caused two major shifts in fashion; the first was a move towards a more androgynous look for women, exemplified by Twiggy, pictured here in 1966 with her famous short cropped hair and boyish figure. The other thing which occurred was that men’s fashion experienced a brief period of real freedom, some might say, for the first time since the French Revolution. This included men growing their hair long and wearing a much bigger range of colours, including pink, and this is something which continues up to the end of the 70s and again we see that just as many women’s fashions used pink, such as in this fashion photo from L’Officiel Spring 1973, we begin to see a fashion for pink in men’s wear too. During the 70s we also see a number of male sex symbols who begin long relationships with the colour pink including Mick Jagger, pictured here in 1971 and then again in 2011. Another pink icon is Rod Stewart whose 1979 Greatest Hits album is more than little bit pink and of course had his very own way of combining pink with leopard print as seen here in 1982. In the 1978 musical Grease, John Travolta appears to be really excited about his matching pink shirt and socks.

In terms of children’s clothes, the 60s, and 70s were actually quite gender-neutral, also in their use of colour. A child of the 70s who would go on to influence the impact of pinkness on the tastes of little girls all over the world is Hello Kitty. Created by Yuko Shimizu and launched in Japan in 1974, this character was introduced to the US market in 1976, bringing with her what has been a long lasting fashion for the Japanese Kawaii aesthetic. The word Kawaii can be translated as “cute”, “adorable” or “lovable” everything which Hello Kitty is, however, when she was launched she was not particularly “pink”, actually her clothes were quite gender neutral, reflecting the children’s fashions of the time, we can see she is a girl because of the big bow she always wears on her head. Like Barbie she came with a whole universe of accessories; school bags, pencil cases, figurines… but it isn’t until the mid-80s that we see a transition to a very deliberate pinkness which would continue to develop into the 2000s. Jo Paoletti, in her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, remarks that between the births of her own two children – a daughter in 1982 and a son in 1986 – there had been a significant change in the gendering of children’s clothing and we see this very clearly with the development of the Hello Kitty empire.

One of the ingenious tactics of Hello Kitty’s marketing is how they have managed to create a line of products which change as the little cat’s fan base grows up; meaning that there are products for infants, toddlers, tweens, teens and adult Hello Kitty lovers. Curiously this is accompanied by the increasing use of pink in their branding as seen in this image of Hello Kitty in heels. It has also lent a playful quality to real grown up objects – for nearly two decades it has been possible to have a pink Hello Kitty credit card, accompanied, of course, by a pink Hello Kitty credit card case! While some of these products are obviously for adult fans, the brand has been criticized for encouraging a consumeristic, “shop ‘till you drop” mentality among little girls.

This carefree idea of a female Peter Pan was further popularised in 1983 with Cyndi Lauper’s huge hit Girls Just Want to Have Fun, in the video clip Lauper wears a pink dress which is combined with black fingerless gloves, chains, studs and teased hair; a new, cute, girly interpretation of punk which would grow in popularity over the following years. The 80s also saw a couple of big changes for Barbie; the first being that she was no longer just a teen model…she could be anything from 1985’s “Day to Night” Barbie who had an outfit which converted from a business suit for her day job to an evening dress for after work, or the 1986 “Rocker” Barbie with her teased hair, she also had an increasing number of luxury accessories such as a convertible, horses, and of course her dream house… all in a rosy world she was creating for herself. The other big change is that she gradually becomes pinker and glitterier as the years go on until she becomes synonymous of the tone of pink which bears her name and is actually registered and owned by the Mattel toy company. Just in case you ever need Barbie’s Pantone number it’s: PMS219C.

The wave of 80s pink also included Madonna’s 1985 hit Material Girl. The video clip which was released with the song recreates Marilyn Monroe’s iconic Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number, complete with her legendary pink dress. Again this song brings forward an image of a frivolous, consumeristic and very pink kind of girl and womanhood which demonstrates how the seeds planted back in the 50s to cultivate a specific kind of female market had grown (like weeds) and were bearing considerable economic fruit. The 1986 cult film Pretty in Pink with Molly Ringwald became such a classic that the title has become an expression in English; thanks to simple repetition the words pretty and pink seem made for each other and the more I look at the trends the more it seems that the notion of pink for girls gained momentum from the mid-80s onwards.

This pink (and blue!) economic phenomenon can be seen in the extraordinary photographs of Korean artist, JeongMee Yoon’s Pink and Blue Project which has been evolving since 2005 and consists of photographs of children in their rooms surrounded by all their pink or blue things…the images are extraordinary such as this photo of sisters Songmi & Gayoung from 2007 where the sisters have an abundance of pink things including a child-size pink Barbie car, or Jiwoo and her pink things, again from 2007. The prevalence of Hello Kitty and Barbie merchandise is almost overwhelming and the artist writes in her statement about the project:

“The Pink and Blue Projects were initiated by my five-year-old daughter, who loves the color pink so much that she wanted to wear only pink clothes and play with only pink toys and objects. I discovered that my daughter’s case was not unusual. In the United States, South Korea and elsewhere, most young girls love pink clothing, accessories and toys. This phenomenon is widespread among children of various ethnic groups regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is the influence of pervasive commercial advertisements aimed at little girls and their parents, such as the universally popular Barbie and Hello Kitty merchandise that has developed into a modern trend. Girls train subconsciously and unconsciously to wear the color pink in order to look feminine.“

The marriage of marketing, the dolly aesthetic and the Japanese Kawaii aesthetic has created a new hybrid of femininity; these little girls are growing up and they are independent, educated, feminists who are also, in some cases, still remarkably pink. An example of this is Brooklyn based designer Elena Kanagy-Loux who, on her Instagram profile describes herself as “I'm what happens when an Amish family moves to Tokyo 🎀 🍥 Lacemaker 🍥 Feminist 🍥 Adult Baby”, she has a complex style which is somewhere between Marie Antoinette, Hello Kitty and Burlesque, which combines the notion of “adult baby” with a distinct sexiness which is not afraid to be provocative. Her aesthetic was influenced by spending part of her childhood and adolescence in Tokyo, in a 2010 interview with Stylelikeu she said: "navy blazers, white shirts with white button-up Peter Pan collars... everyone had a number sewn on... and your socks couldn't be wrinkled." On her day off school she would go to Harajuku (an alternative fashion district in Tokyo) where “There was a place for everything and everyone... it was very freeing for a kid, like myself... there was no judgment." (November 2010), then again on Stylelikeu in January 2014 she added that "when the 'Lolita' craze started in Japan, I was 11 or 12. I really connected to its girly, sentimental, backwards-looking Victorian doll feel. I gravitate toward the pink and the froufrou." In 2014 and 15 she worked on an experimental fashion label together with designer Stella Rose Saint Clair called Doll Eyes which was well received by fashion writers looking for an edgy and original take on femininity, here you can see Elena modelling one of the outfits from their SS2014 collection Easter Mass which clearly shows the quirky combination of influences which Elena brings to her work. In 2014 the label was also commissioned to make two outfits to celebrate the 40th birthday of Hello Kitty, which were on show at the Hello Kitty conference in Los Angeles. You can check out her beautiful Instagram feed @erenanaomi.

So it would appear that we have come to the end of our pink journey, at least for now, from being a colour of passion and considered more suitable for boys to being skilfully manipulated as a marketing tool to create a new commercial demographic and eventually being completely assimilated into a variety of contemporary concepts of femininity, our relationship with this colour has changed dramatically over time and its continued mass popularity attests to the power of advertising and of the media. It is, and will remain, a fascinating colour.

Pink is also the colour of Breast Cancer Awareness and October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. So to all of you I send the simple message: check your breasts regularly. If discovered early the cure rates are very high, never be afraid to see a doctor if you feel that something isn’t quite right. I send my love to everyone who is going through treatment at the moment, and to all the people who are supporting them.


Roberto Calasso, Tiepolo Pink, 2009, Knopf

Barbara Nemitz, Pink: The Exposed Color in Contemporary Art and Culture, 2006, Hatje Cantz Publishers

Jo B. Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, 2012, Indiana University Press

Jo B. Paoletti, Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism and the Sexual Revolution, 2015, Indiana University Press

Lynn Peril, Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons, 2002, W. W. Norton & Company

Penny Sparke, As Long As It's Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste, 1995, Pandora Press


JeongMee Yoon:

Elena Kanagy-Loux:

Elena Kanagy-Loux’s Instagram: @erenanaomi

Stylelikeyou posts:

#folliesoffashion #thehistoryofpink #pinkinfashion #pinkforgirls #colourandgender

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