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Fifty shades of pink (& what they mean)

Updated: Jun 23

I love all colours (except maybe brown). I do also have a complicated relationship with the colour pink. It’s my guilty pleasure; or perhaps it’s more of a love-hate relationship. It’s such a loaded colour, it’s hard to know where I stand with it on any given day. Perhaps it’s because pink itself is so variable. It climbed to the height of popularity as a pastel colour in the early 20th century, receiving a fuchsia facelift during the 1960s and a neon-revamp in the 1980s, before settling down to the dusty pink we know and love today. Its strong association with innocence, girlishness, and all things sweet, makes me uncomfortable. But before we deep dive into my relationship with this multifaceted colour, let me take you on a short and interesting history of the colour pink and its rise to fame.

You may have heard that pink has not always been associated with little girls. In the mid-1700s pale colours, including pink, were popular with European aristocrats and worn by both men and women. Pale pink was considered appropriate for little boys well into the 19th century because it was a paler version of red, which was considered a powerful colour, whilst blue was considered more passive. Red also had masculine associations due to the red English military uniforms worn from the late 17th century onwards.

The shift towards pink as a primarily feminine colour occurred gradually over time. The more recent association with women and femininity began around the mid-19th century when aristocratic men in the Western world adopted dark, sombre colours leaving brighter and pastel options to their female counterparts. The industrial revolution and advancement in clothing manufacturing meant that bright colours became available to the masses, increasing pinks popularity with working class women. Perhaps the most significant influence on this trend towards pink clothing was the post war era that saw women returning to domestic duties, encouraged by advertising as seen on the newly invented televisions. By the 1950s pink was cemented as a female colour, and the genderfication of pink extended beyond women’s and girl’s clothing to include children’s toys. Barbie hit the shelves in 1959 and she personified the image of the hypersexualised, naïve homemaker that pink came to be associated with. By making toys gender specific, companies were able to sell more products, as parents felt the need to buy different toys for their sons and daughters. Pink became an easy identifier for all products marketed to the female sex.

Pink became less popular during the 1970s as baby boomers began to rebel against traditional power structures, and the second wave of feminism was born. Women embraced more masculine styles such as pants and shorthair and this unisex trend extended to children’s clothing, resulting in a rejection of pink. I can certainly attest to this because most of my childhood photos show me wearing many shades of brown overalls (perhaps that explains why I dislike it).

During this time, pink instead became a symbol for gay rights activities. Pink triangles, once used in concentration camps by the Nazis to identify homosexuals and transsexuals, became a symbol of gay activism in the 1970s and is still associated with the LGBTQ community today.

The rejection of pink as a badge of female genitalia was short-lived. According to one expert, the popularity of pink for girls resurged around the time that Generation X started to became parents, perhaps as a reaction to their own experience of unisex fashion as children (damn those brown overalls!). During the 1980s, when ultrasounds became more commonplace, this obsession with pink grew to include baby girl’s attire. Now that parents were able to find out the sex of their child before birth, people began to shop specifically for baby boys and girls and the market responded accordingly. Pinkification reached its peak in the early 2000s with the advent of the Disney princess franchise. These and other children’s movies were specifically invented with the commercialisation of dolls and girl’s clothing in mind, meaning that girls were literally demanding pink everything.

Over the last seventy years, the degree of association between femininity and pink has both grown, shrunk and grown again. In more recent decades pink has become a symbol of feminine power, strength and rebellion. Pink is a symbol for breast cancer awareness and is celebrated during Sydney's annual pink cricket test match. Pink highlights that women are most heavily impacted by the disease and signifies the strength of breast cancer fighters and survivors. Pink is also worn with pride at women’s marches across the world and is seen as a unifying colour for women’s rights movements. Pink has had a make-over, shedding its association with frivolous femininity, and becoming a symbol of female empowerment and confidence.

In recent years gender roles have again come under scrutiny and the fourth wave of feminism has taken hold. This means that in less conservative circles, pink is not necessarily limited to women and girls. "Pink is going through a generational shift," said Valerie Steele, editor of the book ‘Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color.’

"Society is increasingly moving away from the idea of it as a childish, over-sexualized hue. There's a shared recognition that pink can be pretty and powerful, feminine and feminist. Men are turning to it, too - as (they did) in the 18th century. We're re-framing pink."

While this sentimental shift in pink is refreshing, I’m not sure that girl’s clothing manufactures have got the message. A recent online petition called on Kmart to stop separating boys and girls clothing in stores across Australia. The petition organiser stated: “Many parents of young boys will tell you their son loves pink, rainbows and flowers but simply cannot wear clothes in these styles as girls do without taking them from the girls’ section, which sends them a strong message that the things they like are ‘wrong’.” As the mother of two boys, I have often scoured the girl’s section in search of bright colours, often resorting to cutting off bows and frills in the name of unisex fashion. It’s this relentless genderfication of pink that holds me back from embracing pink unconditionally. And yet I can’t seem to break away from it.

It is exactly because of its unyielding association with femininity that I rely on using pink in my artwork. It’s almost impossible to explore themes of womanhood and girlhood without including pink in the conversation. Depending on the type of pink, or what it is paired with, pink can evoke a wide range of emotions. Bright pink suggests fun and energy, while subdued pink is seen as sophisticated and calming. Pink together with white implies innocence and virtuousness, while pink with black is seductive and powerful. It is amazing that one colour can say so much about femininity without the use of words.

Pink is a special colour. When you think about it, no other ‘shade’ has its own name and is so popular in its own right. For instance, when we talk about light blue or pale yellow we don’t have a one-name-fits-all. We may have ‘baby blue’ or ‘pastel blue’ but not a name that encompasses all lighter hues of blue. Pink is a lighter version of red, but we don’t call it ‘pale red’, or ‘light red’ or even ‘a little bit red’. It’s a colour with its own palette. For example, we have hot pink, salmon pink, dusty pink and rose pink (just to name a few). Pink broke away from its red roots back in the mid-1770s when a renowned French porcelain company created a particular tint of pale red by adding nuances of blue, black and yellow. They named it ‘pink’ after a flower of the same name. From then on pink has taken on a life of its own, encompassing such a wide spectrum of hues that even computers have a hard time recognising it.

Love it or hate it, pink is here to stay. While my relationship with pink remains unresolved, I have come to accept that my complicated feelings are more about the commercialisation of women and girls and less about a formidable colour that’s only ‘a little bit red’.

About the artist

Leah is a Melbourne artist who makes figurative work about womanhood and girlhood. She loves all things patterned and often incorporates it into her art.

Stay in touch by signing up to email updates here or follow her artist journey on social media @leahmarianiartspace.

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