A new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York tells the story of this colour – from its historical significance to the evolving hues that have shaped style
A fashion exhibition dedicated to the colour pink
Think of the colour pink and what comes to mind? Candyfloss, Barbie doll and My Little Pony, perhaps? Marketed relentlessly to girls, pink is often rendered in garish, saccharin-sweet shades and is purported to be the stuff of every little girl’s fairy-princess dreams. What probably doesn’t spring immediately to mind is political protests, overt sexuality and displays of power. Yet, that is the role pink has played throughout history.
Far from being the sole preserve of little girls, the shade has switched from being androgynous, for boys, for women and back again. In 1918, the Ladies’ Home Journal wrote: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls.” It declared the reasoning to be that pink is “a more decided and stronger colour … while blue – which is more delicate and dainty – is prettier for the girl”. Despite the Home Journal’s intentions, however, by the 1940s, the gender focus had switched and settled on pink for a girl and blue for a boy. It is strange to think that baby boomers were the first generation to be raised with this notion.
In an attempt to explain the potted history of the hue, an exhibition called Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color, opened at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York this month, and will be on display until January 5. Designed by American historian and the museum’s director and curator Valerie Steele, the retrospective features more than 80 looks, which range in age from the present-day to the 18th century.
The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color explains that pink has been used since the Renaissance to capture Caucasian skin tones, creating an ingrained link between the shade that Italian artist Cennino Cennini described as a blend of Venetian red and St John’s white, and nudity. By the time Madame Pompadour rose to prominence in the French court in the 1740s, that connection had become positively risque. As the chief mistress of King Louis XV, Madame Pompadour paraded in pink gowns that were so blowzy, they owed more to lingerie than dresses. Resplendent in frothy ribbons and swags of icing pink frills, her portraits by Francois Boucher speak volumes about her role in the monarch’s life. Powerful and influential, she had such a fondness for pink that it started a fashion for the colour; even the storied Sevres porcelain factory created a shade especially for her.
By way of explanation, the exhibition offers the viewer an 18th-century woman’s caped mantua gown, lavish in pink and gold damask, alongside a man’s elaborate waistcoat in a rosy hue, which must have cost the owners a small fortune to make. Evidently, staying on the right side of the king’s favourite was expensive business. Such notoriety ensures that designers return to this era again and again. For example, for its autumn/winter 2016 collection, called 18th-century Punk, Japanese label Comme des Garcons carved a dress from pink floral neoprene with elaborate underpinning. Another look was deconstructed to expose a central core with arms covered in preposterous layers of pink frills.
In Japan, pink walks the uncharted line between girlhood and counterculture. Tokyo’s famous Harajuku Girls opt for wildly elaborate dressing to rebel against the country’s strict codes. An example is a 2009 dress that is such a froth of knee-length pastel-pink ribbons and frills that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the court of French queen Marie Antoinette.
In India, pink is routinely worn in such sumptuous shades that it prompted Diana Vreeland’s famous quip “Pink is the navy blue of India” – but it comes with a dark side, too. The women-only Gulabi Gang was formed in the crime-fuelled state of Uttar Pradesh in 2006 as a vigilante group to halt domestic violence. Its uniform is a sari in a vivid hue of the shade.
Even in America, pink has significant value. It was the colour of choice for first lady Mamie Eisenhower in 1953 at the inauguration ceremony of her husband Dwight D. Eisenhower, while in 1963, the hue became a stunned nation’s focal point, when the world watched Jackie Kennedy at the swearing-in ceremony of Lyndon B Johnson, still wearing the pink tweed suit splattered with her slain husband’s blood.
More recently, that silence has given way to a more combative approach, with the Pussy Hat Protests that sprang up following the 2016 inauguration of President Donald Trump. An estimated 5.2 million Americans donned knitted pink hats in opposition to the sexual assaults that Trump had boasted about on national television. Overnight, pink went from saccharine sweet to politically charged.
Of course, the New York exhibition also shows the shade’s less political side, including a dress representative of the 1850s, which is a tiered and frilled vision of femininity. By the early 20th century, thanks to the arrival of aniline dyes, colours were richer and more dramatic, and garments took the form of bias-cut gowns of plump raspberry and beaded flapper dresses in tones ranging from peach to garnet.
In the 1930s, designer Elsa Schiaparelli adopted pink to realise her daring and avant-garde aesthetic. Perhaps inspired by her friends Salvador Dali, Giacometti and Meret Oppenheim, Schiaparelli veered towards using an almost surreal shade of the colour; she even invented her own shade – the original shocking pink – creating fluid dresses they came to define the era. A fragrance by the designer, fittingly called Shocking, came in a pink-flower-and-ribbon-adorned glass bottle said to be modelled on the voluptuous curves of actress Mae West.
The exhibition moves on to the exaggerated shape that women’s dresses took on in the 1950s, shown in tones of blush and magenta. These take the form of a cocktail gown with an extravagant trailing bow, and the curve-hugging pink outfit reminiscent of the one that appeared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the 1953 film, Marilyn Monroe sang Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend in a fitted, strapless dress that became so well- known, it was copied three decades later by Madonna for her single Material Girl.
More recently, late designer Azzedine Alaia outlined his deep understanding of the power of the silhouette. He constructed a tube dress from a malleable, stretchy fabric with complete lack of structure.
This sits in perfect contrast to a corset from the 1880s, the pale pink silk of which attempts to hides its unforgiving metal and whalebone cage.
In 2011, Jil Sander decided to create a man’s belted suit in a saturated pink that verged on neon. In 2017, meanwhile, Rihanna opted for the other end of the palette for Puma x Fenty, and created a ripstop playsuit in a dusty, barely-there shade of nude. Last year also saw the arrival of millennial pink, which was intended to be entirely genderless.
Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color aims to showcase all these connotations that the colour commands. It puts in mind columnist Petula Dvorak’s plea in The Washington Post when a second Pussy Hat Protest was planned for early 2017. Concerned that the shade was too pretty to be taken seriously, she said: “Please, sisters, back away from the pink.” Maybe she should have researched the colour a little more closely.