A Brief History of Pink

Pink, such a pretty colour, said to be indicative of femininity, love, compassion and tenderness, as well as being symbolic of hope. So why then, is it so utterly divisive! For some, my opening gambit would have struck home eliciting a sigh of gentle appreciation; for others, it might well induce instant irritation. But then pink has always been something of a contradiction, and this is what makes its many characteristics so fascinating, if not complex.

Pink @michelleogundehin Instagram moodboard

Pink @michelleogundehin Instagram moodboard

And as for being a shade with a historically defined gender bias, let’s get that out of the way first. It isn’t true. A century ago, baby boys would have been swaddled in pink, and girls in blue, as pink, being understood as a diminutive of red (deemed aggressive thus manly and masculine), was thought suitable only for little boys. An oft quoted edict from a trade publication of 1918, stated, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy.” If we add to this the fact that the Virgin Mary was always depicted clothed in blue, the case was made. It was only in the 1950s, that the appropriateness of these colours became determined by sex, and even then, probably only as a canny marketing ploy to shift more product.

In psychological terms, its meaning is also widely contested. In Korea it represents trust; in India, hospitality; and in Japan masculinity as the annual blooming of the pink-blossomed cherry trees is said to represent young Samurai warriors fallen in the prime of life. In China, the colour wasn’t even recognised until they had contact with Western culture, and to date the Chinese word for pink translates as ‘foreign colour’. In fact, it didn’t enter the English language as a noun until the 17thCentury. Named after the flowers, it nevertheless references their frilled edges rather than the colour of the petals, alluding to the verb, ‘to pink’, as in the action of trimming fabrics with zigzags to prevent them from fraying.

Pink has also done time as a political provocateur. The Nazi’s used an inverted pink triangle to identify anyone suspected of homosexuality, a badge which was later positively reclaimed by the Gay Pride movement. As a corollary, in the 1970s pink incurred a feminist backlash with rising dissent against the colour’s implied femininity, helped by a series of experiments in America that appeared to prove that men held within a pink room would become sapped of strength; in other words, pink made them weak. This tranquilizing effect was subsequently employed in prison holding cells, visitor’s locker rooms at college football stadiums and in small town drunk-tanks. Unsurprisingly, women wanted nothing to do with it. Add to this an ongoing scientific debate that argues that the colour doesn’t actually exist, and perhaps we start to get to the heart of its polarity.

To explain: in terms of the electromagnetic spectrum, pink is a mix of red and violet, which being on opposite sides of that spectrum cannot be combined without bending it in on itself, which is impossible, ergo, a pink wavelength of light does not exist. It’s therefore defined as an ‘extra spectral colour’, which seems rather fitting. In other words, when you look at a pink object, it only appears that way because certain wavelengths of light are reflected, while others are simultaneously absorbed, and your eyes and brain do the mixing. In short, pink only really exists in the realm of pigments, dyes and chemicals. And for the record, flamingos are coloured this way because they eat shrimp! No shrimp equals white feathers.

Curiously, the gender debate has never seemingly affected architecture. The so-called ‘pink city’ of Jaipur, the capital of India’s Rajasthan region, all ancient palaces in myriad rosy hues due to the natural pigment of the local sandstone, is simply referred to as one of the country’s architectural wonders. Petra, in Jordan, a UNESCO world heritage site similarly crafted from local red, white and pink sandstone, is deemed one of the new seven wonders of the world; not to forget Marrakech, popularly dubbed the ‘Rose City’ for the red clay of its terrain and its salmon pink buildings. And then there’s the Pritzker prize-winning Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s superbly expressive use of the colour in his work, chosen for its vivid contrast to his native Latin American blue skies. Each of these examples is universally noted for being striking and unique, certainly not for being unduly girly.

Most recently trend talk has been all about the rise and rise of ‘millennial pink’, a desaturated, muddied version of Malibu Barbie’s sugary tones. I’d posit that its ascendancy reflects current conversations about gender fluidity. This iteration of pink, being neither saccharine sweet nor stripped bare but somewhere in between, is a new neutral. As such it’s been eagerly adopted by both men and women (and any gender we care to insert in between), to make a statement about their emotional openness and modernity.

Millennial Pink @michelleogundehin Instagram moodboard

Millennial Pink @michelleogundehin Instagram moodboard

Interestingly, in 2014, the Color Marketing Group, a worldwide non-profit forecasting group, picked a very similar colour as its prediction for 2016, and they called it Shim, as a hybrid of she and him. Mark Woodman, the former president of CMG, called the pick “a moment of quietude.” And for me this is key. Pink has the ability to calm, it can be a soothing balm in increasingly hectic times (think Germolene to Pepto Bismol: it’s no accident that these healing potions are also coloured pink) which when the world feels like it’s spinning out of control —politically, financially and ecologically — becomes a truly powerful force indeed, not a weakening one.

And colour meanings can change. Let’s consider black. In the 1800s a young woman wearing black would have instantly provoked the assumption that someone had died, such was the widely-accepted connotation of this colour. Today, anyone can wear black without being on their way to a funeral. It has become just a colour. Could it be that the same could happen for pink? I think so. Its time has surely come as the go-to colour for a new generation seeking a better, more inclusive future for all.

And the trick to using it in the home? Combine it with other colours, materials and finishes that take up the gauntlet of strength and solidity in support, such that the overall mix speaks of balance. Consider pinks given edge with the gentlest smudge of grey, whether literally, or physically in the room with grey-toned accessories; add metallics for a dose of glamour, and olive greens for depth. After all, as Miley Cyrus put it, “Pink isn’t just a colour, it’s an attitude!”

 

First published in Neptune Stories magazine, June 2018.

Categories: Colour, PRACTICALS, Trends

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