Pink: Understanding The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color in Fashion

Pink: Understanding The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color in Fashion October 30, 2018
Storytailors Armour by Luis de Barros. Image courtesy of FIT.

Pink provokes exceptionally strong feelings of both attraction and repulsion. Indeed, it has been called the most divisive of colors. Yet attitudes towards pink are changing, and the color is increasingly regarded as cool and androgynous. Although pink is popularly associated with little girls, ballerinas, and all things feminine, the stereotype of pink for girls and blue for boys only really gained traction in the United States in the mid-20th century, and the symbolism of pink has varied greatly across world history. By placing men’s, women’s, and children’s pink clothing from both Western and non-Western cultures in a historical context, the exhibition Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color at the Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, corrects popular misconceptions, encourages viewers to question clichés and received opinion, and demonstrates that “It is society that ‘makes’ color, defines it, gives it meaning” — to quote the great color historian Michel Pastoureau.

Pink is organized by the museum’s director and chief curator, Dr. Valerie Steele. Pink features approximately 80 ensembles from the 18th century to the present, with examples by designers and brands such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Alessandro Michele of Gucci, Jeremy Scott of Moschino, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. The exhibition is accompanied by a book published by Thames & Hudson and a free symposium was held on October 19, 2018, to discuss the exhibition.

The exhibition is divided into two sections. The introductory gallery focuses primarily on the theme “Pretty in Pink” with approximately 35 examples of traditionally “feminine” pink clothes organized chronologically from the mid-19th century through the 20th century. It begins by juxtaposing an 1857 bright pink crinoline dress with a black 1860 man’s suit, illustrating the feminization of color in the 19th century.

Subsequent dresses demonstrate how different shades of pink came in and out of fashion, evoking different ideas about femininity. Around 1900, for example, pale pinks implied delicate, aristocratic femininity, while by 1912 a vibrant cherry pink indicated a more exotic image. The 1920s, famous for the Little Black Dress, actually saw a rise in popularity for a range of pinks, crowned by Schiaparelli’s aptly named Shocking Pink of the late 1930s.

The 1950s are notorious as the era of the “feminine mystique” when gender stereotyping was reinforced throughout society and the pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys gender coding took off.  Naturally, there are many 1950s feminine pink dresses for girls and women, although Brooks Brothers also sold pink shirts for men. The 1960s continued to witness the popularity of many “pretty in pink” dresses, such as a 1960 cocktail dress by Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior. The 1970s saw a decline in pink fashion, although fluorescent pink appeared. By the 1980s, pink was back in fashion, although often, as with a 1980 hot pink “power suit” by Claude Montana, it also served to acknowledge women’s growing social authority.

In addition to the clothing and accessories on display, there is a fascinating diorama of pink toys and dress-up clothes for girls, dating from the 1950s to the present, including dolls, “princess” costumes, My Little Pony, and other highly gendered commodities.

In contrast to the chronological layout of the introductory gallery, the main gallery is organized thematically to highlight key concepts in the history of pink. The first section, “Pompadour Pink,” features several 18th-century ensembles, including a woman’s pink robe à la française, a man’s pink habit à la française, and a man’s pink banyan. These objects show how pink was a new and highly fashionable unisex color in 18th-century Europe—in contrast to the 19th and 20th centuries when pink was coded as a “feminine” color. In the 18th century, pink was also important in painting and interior design.

In the exhibition, there is a small section on the pink-versus-blue gender coding in children’s wear, a binary that was still in flux in the late 1920s, when opinion was divided as to whether pink was for boys or for girls. The final decision seems to have been influenced by publicity surrounding a millionaire’s purchase of the paintings Blue Boy and Pinkie. Reproductions of these are featured along with that of another 18th-century painting, Pink Boy.

The exhibition places pink in a global context, exploring how the color has been used in non-Western cultures. In India, for example, pink has long been worn by both men and women, while in Mexico the color Rosa Mexicano is associated with national identity. Western designers have drawn on these associations; as Diana Vreeland once said, “Pink is the navy blue of India.” Schiaparelli’s Shocking Pink was explicitly associated, in her mind, with Asia and Latin America.

In the center of the gallery is a grouping of platforms, “Rose/Eros” and “Pink: The Exposed Color,” exploring the erotic connotations of pink, which are both significant and overdetermined. Among the reasons why pink is widely regarded as an erotic color are the pinky-beige of Caucasian skin, which has led to the idea that pink is associated with nudity. Added to this are the fact that certain eroticized zones of the body such as the mouth, genitals, and nipples are known as “pink parts”; the fact that flowers, long associated with feminine beauty, are the sex organs of plants; and that pink-colored cosmetics are used to simulate blushing. Lingerie, corsets, and evening gowns, often produced in shades of pink, are featured in this section.

Pink has played a notable role in both political protests and popular music associated with rebellious youth. The transgressive role of pink is emphasized across several platforms featuring both men’s and women’s clothes, ranging from vernacular garments to avant-garde high fashion. Featured items include pink pussy hats, and looks associated with music genres ranging from punk to hip-hop.

Pink expands audience perspectives on pink and shows how contemporary designers are increasingly challenging traditional ideas about sweet, pink femininity. Rei Kawakubo, the radical designer behind Comme des Garçons, has been especially influential with collections ranging from “Biker/Ballerina” to “18th-Century Punk.” Even the house of Valentino has produced T-shirts asserting that “Pink Is Punk.”

Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color is open until January 5th, 2019 at The Museum at FIT. – GM

Elsa Schiaparelli, silk taffeta embroidered dinner jacket ensemble, spring 1947. Lent by Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mme Elsa Schiaparelli, 1969. Schiaparelli Paris, silk chiffon gown, fall 2015-2016. Lent by Maison Schiaparelli.
Yves Saint Laurent, evening dress, shoes, and jewelry, autumn/winter 1983. Lent by Museé Yves Saint Laurent Paris.
Raf Simons for Jil Sander, man’s suit, polyester, cotton, nylon, and spandex, spring 2011. The Museum at FIT. Céline, synthetic knit dress, spring 2017. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Céline.
Pink: Understanding The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color. © Zach Hilty.

Images courtesy of The Museum at FIT

Article by Cheri Fein

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