punk and pretty: a history of fashion through the color pink
"Why would anyone pick blue over pink?" wondered Kanye West in 2012. Designers from Miuccia Prada to Karl Lagerfeld to Shayne Oliver have debated this question on the runway for decades.
Hood By Air spring/summer 16. Photography Jason Lloyd-Evans.
Hillary Clinton's first-ever press conference as First Lady, in April 1994, has gone down in history as the "pink press conference" or even the "pretty-in-pink press conference." Sitting in the White House State Dining Room, Clinton fielded questions about her eyebrow-raising 1970s tax returns while wearing a prim rose-colored sweater set. Writing in the Washington Post in 1996, fashion critic Robin Givhan recollected how political commentators at the time had immediately judged: "that wasn't a pink sweater set; it was a public relations ploy."
"Mrs. Clinton's dilemma," wrote Givhan, "is that women have no business uniform. They have no garb that allows them to slip in and out of a situation without fashion commentary that mixes in pop psychology."
In the history of fashion, no color has been so loaded with pop psychology as pink. Partly because pink has, in many cultures, become the uniform for the business of being a woman. (Clinton also wore pink to deliver her landmark "women's right are human rights" address to the Fourth Women's Conference in Beijing the following year.)
Pink's association with femininity doesn't go all that far back, though. Nor is femaleness its only connotation. But when pink appears on the runway — at Prada or Balenciaga, Hood By Air or Comme des Garçons — we attempt to parse its meaning with an intentness not often applied to other colors (green and blue are usually just allowed to be green and blue).
In 2014, the exhibition "Think Pink" at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston helped demonstrate just how recently pink became cultural shorthand for "girl." Artworks showed how in the 1700s both men and women wore pink; an 18th-century portrait of two children depicted a boy in a blush brocade dress. By way of explanation, the academic Jo Paoletti writes in her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America that for centuries pink was predominantly a color associated with "health (as in 'in the pink') and youth." The Boston exhibition also included a 1918 clothing catalog touting pink for boys because, as curator Michelle Finamore told NPR, "it's a stronger and more passionate color, and because it's actually derived from red."
Pink became standard in female fashion after World War Two, Finamore explains, when Christian Dior introduced his romantic, modern New Look as a reaction to the severity of post-war rationing. Men were returning to the workforce and women were remaking their lives at home — a migration that companies leaped on with new household goods in bubblegum shades that appealed to fun and fashion. Pink has remained the color used to signify women's products ever since. (Hence why we're now debating the "pink tax.")
Pale pink and grey were touchstones of Dior's New Look collections throughout the late 40s and 50s. But he didn't use pink to evoke feminine softness. "I'm a mild man, but I have violent tastes," the designer told a LIFE reporter after presenting his breakout spring 1948 collection. "Other designers might sidle up to old-fashioned femininity and romance; Dior tackled it headlong," the reporter observed, "Like all great revolutionists, Christian Dior is a creature of destiny."
Another pink revolutionary, Elsa Schiaparelli, had pioneered a very different shade of pink between the two World Wars. Pink, said Schiaparelli, is "bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together." Her favorite eye-popping blend of red and white (more fuchsia than Dior's floral shades) became known as "shocking pink" when it was immortalized in the vibrant packaging of her 1937 perfume Shocking! (exclamation mark her own). For Schiaparelli, pink was "a shocking color, pure and undiluted."
But as Kay Thompson sang in her iconic Funny Face number "Think Pink," while pink was about a new "great horizon" and "joie de vivre" in the late 1950s, it was also the color of shampoos, toothpastes, and "the kitchen sink." It was modern, but also symbolic of the era's commercialism.
Flash forward to the economic boom of the mid 1990s and Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld reveled in plastic pink. Claudia Schiffer strutted down the runway in a hot pink velour tracksuit stamped with Chanel's double-C logo for the brand's spring/summer 96 collection. It was the season Lagerfeld showed his iconic nipple-like micro-bras and styled several looks with CHANEL store shopping bags — a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of boom-time extravagance and Barbie-like plasticity.
Pink's commercial appeal is seemingly what led Miuccia Prada to avoid the color for years. After showing her candy-colored fall/winter 15 collection — punctuated by soft pink pant suits and dolly bird dresses — she told Alexander Fury that "the world tends towards banality" and "that's why the last shows were about animal prints, symbols — because that's what people want. They want animal prints, pink bows." In a 2004 profile in the The Independent, Prada recalled that she "grew up envying pink shoes" because her mother would only let her wear sensible brown flats. As a strident anti-establishment force with a taste for the perverse, Prada has always been wary of pink — unless she's subverting its saccharine sweetness. For fall/winter 15, she says she presented the color as "a point of discussion."
Pink itself has a subversive streak, thanks partly to the fashion and iconography of punk. The first issue of i-D, released in 1980, was a pink paper zine stapled together by founders Terry and Tricia Jones. Siouxsie Sioux lacquered her eyelids electric pink, Courtney Love made pink grunge with her thrifted kinderwhore dresses, and Kathleen Hanna once performed in a baby pink Ariel the little mermaid T-shirt.
In more recent years, pink has become especially wrapped up in discussions about gender, especially as it regains its gender neutrality on the runways. Alessandro Michele presented a striking hot pink sweater on tattooed male model Lorens for spring/summer 17. Blush was a key note in Shayne Oliver's school-inspired spring/summer 16 Hood By Air collection, appearing on models of all genders.
Strangely, at the same time that pink is crossing presumed gender lines, it's being newly held up as a feminist symbol. Look at any image of the Women's March on Washington and beneath the posters is a sea of pink "pussy hats." In more subtle ways, pink is also being reclaimed in pop culture and repositioned as a symbol of female strength: at Rihanna's all-pink 2016 VMAs performance or in the hue of Blue Ivy's tiny suit at the 2017 Grammys. If the pink pop culture icon of the 90s was Gwyneth Paltrow in that taffeta Ralph Lauren princess gown at the 1999 Oscars, today's is Solange, wearing that powder-pink jacket in the video for "Cranes in the Sky."
Her soft pink wrapping is protective but also joyful. Beyond its gendered associations, pink is a color that calms and pacifies. In the 1960s and 70s, researcher Alexander Schauss studied subjects' psychological and physiological responses to the color pink, and developed a shade he called P-618. Later renamed Baker-Miller pink, the color, he found, induced "a marked effect on lowering the heart rate, pulse and respiration as compared to other colors." As we enter a new and troubling time in U.S. history, what color could be a better antidote? New York designer Sander Lak, of the colorful brand Sies Marjan, recently advised i-D, "If you always wear pink, I'm telling you, you will feel happier."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson