Pretty in Pink: How a Color Came to Represent a Gender

From Homer's rosy fingered dawn, to Elsa Schiaparelli's shocking pink, to the "pinkification" of girlhood, the hue has a long and surprisingly subversive history.
March 14, 2016, 5:05pm

From toys to tampons to kitchen decor, the color pink has been associated with all things girly and feminine for more than a century. This color code runs deep and is hard to break. Many feel that the "pinkification" of girlhood and the accompanying color binary—blue for boys and pink for girls—is old-fashioned and needs to be reassessed.

Aesthetically, pink is singular and unmistakable. Even as its cultural meanings have shifted throughout time, the hue and its many shades have lent its power to fashion, political movements, and sociology. To quote the color-obsessed artist Yves Klein, "Colors truly inhabit space—they are highly developed individuals who become a part of us." Likewise, pink has reinvented itself over and over again, challenging the notion that color can be confined to a single idea, let alone to a single definition of a gender.

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The rosy-fingered dawn

While the concept of the color pink shows up as early as 800 BCE, when Homer described the sunrise as "the rosy-fingered dawn" in the Odyssey, the actual usage of the word "pink" didn't appear until the 17th century, when the blushing ruffled edges of Carnation-family flower were named "Pinks" by Greek botanist Theophrastus. Next, early Renaissance images depicted Christ in pink because the color was associated with innocence and the womb. Likewise, the goddess Venus, matriarch of love and intimacy, was often displayed with glowing skin and painted in pink during that time period.

It wasn't until the 18th century that the Rococo period ushered in a new flamboyant era of pink. (Think Fragonard and Marie Antoinette.) The French Sèvres porcelain factory manufactured a glaze called "Rose Pompadour" around 1758—presumably named after Madame Pompadour, King Louis XV's official mistress, whose favorite color was supposedly pink. Her preference is often attributed to the popularity of the color and is one of the earliest references to pink as a feminine hue. The connection is important, however, as the tint was associated with frivolity, seduction, and corruption during the Rococo era, which conflated the gender with these attributes.

"The Swing," Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Image via Wikipedia.

Shocking Schiaparelli

Later in the early 19th century, brighter colors became associated with the exotic and the tropical, and bright pink was considered a luxurious tone. The accidental invention of chemical synthetic fabric dyes in 1856 brought color into full force and allowed designers to soak their clothes in vibrant tones. If you thought hot pink was an original hallmark of the 1980s, think again. "Shocking Pink" was the signature shade of visionary Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion designer and artist who is most famous for her collaborations with Salvador Dali during the 1930s.

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Inspired by the art of the Surrealist and Dada movements, Schiaparelli was prolific and provocative with designs like her trompe l'oeil ribbon sweater, butterfly print, and the famous lobster dress, which garnered her worldwide fame. Schiaparelli's designs were a sharp contrast to the mood of Europe at the time, as World War II loomed on the horizon. In her autobiography, "Shocking Life," Schiaparelli writes how much she loved hot pink, describing it as "life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West—a shocking color, pure and undiluted." In her honor, Crayola introduced Shocking Pink crayon in 1972, and her namesake NARS' lip color "Schiap" is considered a cult classic.

A Schiaparelli label. Image via Wikipedia.

Pink is for boys

Perhaps the most embedded understanding of the color pink in Western culture is in its relationship to its apparent counterpoint, the color blue. In America, prior to WWI, the color binary was actually flipped: Pink was for boys, and blue was for girls. This was said to be rooted in early 18th century color symbolism, in which red was considered a sign of wealth and virility and worn primarily by men. At the time, boys were traditionally dressed as miniature versions of their fathers; since pink is a tint of red, little boys often wore pink. For example, a portrait of Queen Victoria in 1850 shows her with her son, Prince Arthur, who is swaddled entirely in pink cloth.

According to clothing scholar Jo B. Paoletti, author of "Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America", today's color mandate wasn't established until the 1940s, as a result of interpreted market research conducted by manufacturers and retailers. Up until that point and for centuries, it was customary for babies of both genders to wear frilly white dresses until the age of six.

There are myriad theories as to how pink became cemented as a feminized color. One speculation attributes the popularity of pink to First Lady Mamie Eisenhower who, like Schiapelli and Madame Pompadour, was obsessed with the color. For instance, she wore an entirely strawberry pink gown studded in over 2,000 rhinestones to the presidential inaugural ball in 1953. It's said she decorated the White House so thoroughly in pink that reporters started referring to it as "The Pink Palace," and American wives followed suit. "Mamie pink" was everywhere, especially in consumer culture as pink appliances, pink telephones, pink clothes, and pink toys surged through the market and were—to no one's surprise—advertised entirely to women and girls. As a wartime wife, Mamie all but created the archetype of the wholesome, dutiful housewife that has become emblematic of 1950s American women. In fact, Mamie is famously quoted as saying, "Ike runs the country, and I turn the pork chops."

Political in pink

Historically, pink has been seen as a color correlated with effeteness and femininity—traits that are often mistaken for weakness. Because of this, political movements have embraced and employed the color pink to accompany direct action and to represent their revolutions.

During World War II, the inverted pink triangle, called the "Rosa Winkel," first appeared. It was originally used to identify gay men in Nazi concentration camps. Worn over the left breast and often in tandem with other color-coded triangles, the pink triangle was intended as a badge of shame. It was later reclaimed and flipped upright, becoming an international symbol of gay rights during the post-Stonewall protests of the 1970s. Later, in 1987, HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) co-opted the triangle as their official emblem and added the now famous message, "SILENCE = DEATH" on a black background. To this day, the pink triangle is widely recognized as a hallmark of LGBTQIA+ solidarity and power, and it is worn as a symbol of pride.

Currently, in central India, an all-women vigilante group called the Gulabi Gang (or Pink Gang) holds rapists and abusive men accountable by hunting them down and beating them with sticks. The Gulabi Gang began in 2006 with just five members, after leader Sampat Pal Devi became frustrated by the lack of progress she saw in local NGOs. Women flock to Sampat Pal Devi's small painted pink house in Uttar Pradesh, India's most impoverished state, where she lives alone, seeking her advice and protection. Membership costs four dollars: the price of an electric pink sari, the uniform of the Gulabi Gang. "People have tried to assassinate me, arrest me, abuse me and shut me up," says Sampat Pal Devi, "but I won't be quiet until things improve for the women here." Sampat and her gang intervene where the Indian Parliament won't, enacting revenge for wounded women and ensuring them a renewed quality of life.

The pink slip

In visual culture, the idea that the color pink is linked to femininity is nothing new and it seems that the color binary will continue to be reinvented as aesthetics and gender expression evolve. Just this year, Pantone announced its first duo Color of the Year with Rose Quartz and Serenity—otherwise known as pink and blue. Gender cannot and will not be measured by color, and a kid's ingenuity is neither pink nor blue. Even as historically powerful women preferred pink, it was their choice that emboldened the color and influenced others to embrace it.