Essays

A Western Cultural History of Pink, from Madame de Pompadour to Pussy Hats

It goes without saying that pink is unserious. But why?

View of the Women’s March on Washington from the roof of the Voice of America building in Washington, D.C. (image via Wikimedia)

Visitors to the official website of the Pussyhat Project are welcomed with an exclamation of color and joy from founders Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman: “We did it! We created a sea of pink!” And indeed they did. The Women’s March on Washington, D.C., and the 600 allied marches across the United States and the world, drew between 3.3 and 4.6 million protesters, making it one of the largest single-day demonstrations in the nation’s history. Suh and Zweiman launched the Pussyhat Project in advance of the march with the goal of having one million hats on hand, and their website includes PDF patterns for knit, sewn, and crocheted versions, which have collectively been downloaded more than 100,000 times. The resulting sea of cat hats caused a run on pink yarn across the country and quickly became a powerful visual shorthand for this particular swath of anti-Trump protest movements.

The message of the color pink is so powerful that it rarely needs explanation. We all know what it implies: it’s feminine, frilly, cheery, and delicate, certainly not a color we expect to see on, say, the cover of a scientific journal. It is often used to stand in for character development, as in the 2001 movie Legally Blonde, in which it’s implied that the pink-clad sorority girl Elle Woods, who carries a pink-accessorized chihuahua for good measure, can’t possibly be serious about applying to Harvard Law School. A claque of superficial teenage girls is similarly characterized in the 2004 film Mean Girls (“On Wednesdays, we wear pink,” says the alpha.) Unlike red, which flexibly symbolizes both Communism and the GOP, pink is so precisely coded that it’s almost impossible to misunderstand its intent. For this reason, pink tends to be either loved or loathed.

The Women’s March managed the tricky feat of eliciting criticism from both the right and the left, and one of the themes of that criticism has been the Pussyhat Project, and its signature color, in particular. A week before the March, Petula Dvorak admonished her readers in the Washington Post: “Please, sisters, back away from the pink.” Dvorak argued that pussy hats risked trivializing the message of the Women’s March, and she focused much of her critique on their color and crafting. Her language is telling: She writes of “pink pussycat hats, sparkly signs, and color-coordinated street theater,” as well as “she-power frippery,” then goes on to describe the imagined march as “an unruly river of Pepto-Bismol roiling through the streets.” Noting that the issues at stake for women in the Trump era are “serious stuff,” Dvorak makes the case for equal pay and reproductive rights, asserting her feminist bona fides, then goes on to mock pussy hats as “totally clever and cute and fun” — a clear dig based on negative stereotypes of young women’s speech. And in his predictably tone-deaf post-mortem of the march in the New York Times, the conservative opinion writer David Brooks proposed that the whole exercise was mired in the dead-end rituals of lefty identity politics and that its props and crutches were distractions disguising a lack of real substance from which a coherent anti-Trump agenda might arise. He singles out “pink hats” for disdain, and his lack of any descriptors to characterize them makes his logic clear: It goes without saying that pink is unserious. But why?

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, painted between 1748 and 1755, Musée du Louvre (via Wikimedia)

Pink’s cultural history is complicated. Its first real moment in the spotlight was during the European Rococo period, when it became a favorite hue for fashion, confections, tableware, and the lighthearted frolicking depicted in the Romantic paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Madame de Pompadour, the chief mistress of Louis XV, famously loved pink clothes, and she commissioned a bright pink porcelain service from Sèvres, which developed a new color for the set called Rose Pompadour in 1757. But throughout this period, pink was more strongly associated with style and luxury than with a particular gender. Quoted in a 2013 article in The Atlantic, fashion historian and Director of the Museum at FIT Valerie Steele notes that “in the 18th century, it was perfectly masculine for a man to wear a pink silk suit with floral embroidery.” Pink was still understood primarily as a paler version of red — a bold, even bellicose color that had military associations.

Soft-paste porcelain Potpourri vase, Sèvres Manufactory (French, 1740–present), modeled by Jean-Claude Duplessis (French, ca. 1695–1774, active 1748–74), ca. 1757–58, Gift of Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1958 (image via Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Even more surprising is the fact that light blue — which, as many a modern-day sex-reveal cake will confirm, is virtually synonymous with the phrase “it’s a boy!” — was more strongly associated with female children until just after World War II. Sociologist Jo B. Paoletti, whose book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America traces the history of color and gender in children’s clothing, writes that for most of the 19th century, the go-to color for dressing infants of both sexes was white. This was partly for practical reasons: Dyes during this period were apt to fade with repeated washing, particularly the boil-washing and bleaching required to keep baby clothes clean, so there wasn’t much point in spending money on fashionably hued garments for infants. The second reason is that, at the time, babies’ perceived gender ambiguity was viewed not as a problem to be solved with a color-coded headband, but as a virtue to be cherished and protected. Gender was understood as a component of adult sexuality, which in turn was considered taboo in the context of young children. If prepubescent children were “innocent,” they were to be only vaguely gendered. As color became a potent branding tool in the first decades of the 20th century, pink and blue emerged as interchangeable colors for children’s clothing and nursery décor, along with pale yellow and green. And sometimes pink was perceived as more appropriate for little boys, owing to its relationship to the robust and “masculine” red. But, according to Paoletti, well into the 1920s, there was little consensus on the part of department stores and women’s periodicals as to which color was properly assigned to which gender, and many parents simply gravitated to whatever looked more attractive on their child.

How and when did this change? “There was no sudden, unanimous cultural shift,” Paoletti writes in Pink and Blue. “It evolved over decades. At the same time, clothing manufacturers did their best to anticipate those choices better than their competitors and to shape those choices in order to make them more predictable and profitable.” In other words, it may not have happened overnight, but it was clearly the influence of manufacturing and marketing in the postwar United States that caused the gendered assignments of pink for girls and blue for boys to stick for good.

Print ad for Hotpoint Stoves, 1956 (image via Flickr)

Pink emerged as one of the dominant hues in the 1950s at precisely the moment when American women were whisked off the wartime assembly line and back into the kitchen. Thanks to the postwar proliferation of suburban tract housing with brand new appliances in fashion colors, American homes simultaneously became more explicitly gendered and more actively color-coded than ever before. In her book The Color Revolution, design historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk finds one of the earliest moments of pink’s emergence in, of all places, the preppy men’s retailer Brooks Brothers, which in 1949 opened a department store just for women on 5th Avenue and introduced a popular line of pink blouses that got major publicity in the fashion press. This, combined with First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s fondness for a shade that became known as “First Lady Pink,” helped propel the color into American shops and homes. Unlike Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s version, Shocking Pink, which enjoyed a somewhat avant-garde moment in the late 1930s, First Lady Pink was soft and subdued.

Mamie Eisenhower in her inaugural gown, painted in 1953 by Thomas Stevens (via Wikimedia)

After pink conquered the fashion world, Blaszczyk writes, Armstrong premiered pink vinyl flooring and General Electric started selling “Petal Pink” appliances. Scores of competitors quickly followed suit. For women in the 1950s who were old enough to remember cast iron stoves, a pink cooktop and a matching floor would have been a revelation. The novel colors and sleek designs of the postwar period transformed kitchens from hot, uncomfortable workspaces into natural extensions of a feminized, comfortable, and stylish home. “Linked with the idea of female childhood,” writes Penny Sparke in her 1995 book As Long as It’s Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste, “[pink] represented the distinctive gendering that underpinned 1950s society, ensuring that women were women and men were men. Gendering had to start at an early age, and parents were the key role models. The use of pink in the home emphasized the essential femininity of girls and women, and it showed daughters that their mothers understood this and wished them to recognize the distinctiveness of their gender as well.” Unsurprisingly, one of the main critiques of the limits of postwar life for middle-class American women was that it was akin to playing house. Betty Friedan famously characterized housewives as “childlike” and “passive” in The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

With pink’s complex lineage, it’s useful to think of its cultural footprint as intersectional. While its feminine association with gender is now unquestioned, it’s also a symbol, perhaps more crucially, of age. More than womanhood per se, pink represents girlhood, and it can be understood as a gendered yet asexual marker of femininity. Like the all-in-white infants of the 19th century, today’s little girls are awash in pink — a global phenomenon beautifully captured by the South Korean artist JeongMee Yoon in her “Pink and Blue Project.” But adult women are pinkified, too: The Breast Cancer Awareness movement has all but co-opted pink through advertising, product design, and even museum exhibition sponsorship, as in the well-received 2013 show Think Pink, which was on view at the MFA Boston in October 2013 (during Breast Cancer Awareness month). When we seek a pretty razor with a built-in dab of sweet-smelling moisturizer, we pay the “pink tax” to buy a product for women that’s nearly identical to its dark blue or steel gray (and less expensive) male counterpart.

JeongMee Yoon, “The Pink Project II: Lauren & Carolyn and Their Pink & Purple Things” (2009), light jet print (image courtesy of the artist)

So as consumers and activists today, when we embrace pink, are we proudly reclaiming a color that has been unfairly maligned and prone to sexist ridicule, or are we just falling into an advertiser’s trap? And conversely, when we denigrate pink, are we simply being reactionary, carping about an innocuous cultural trait the way radio listeners complain about vocal fry? It’s impossible to untangle the 1950s gendering campaign that made pink so pervasive from the sexism inherent to the era. We can’t know if we perceive pink the way we do because it became associated with women, or indeed if it became associated with women because it had been associated with childhood, and housewives were not perceived as fully adult. This netherworld of the not-quite-grownup woman is evident in pink’s cultural symbolism even now. While breasts are as sexualized as ever in popular culture, the Breast Cancer Awareness movement’s devotion to pink seems like a clear attempt to recast an illness that primarily afflicts a female erogenous zone (although men can also suffer from breast cancer) as something girlish, even prepubescent. Likewise, the Pussyhat Project took its name from the Access Hollywood tapes that record Donald Trump describing how and where a male celebrity can “grab” women. Though they have been referred to as “vagina hats” by critics on the right, in an attempt to vulgar-shame the protesters, the hats themselves, handmade and cozy, are more akin to stuffed animals than sultry clothing.

WOW 😲 Um, good morning! We woke up and there were #pussyhats on @theviewabc! Photo by @the_lemonade_shop

A post shared by Pussyhat Project (@p_ssyhatproject) on

I personally like pink quite a bit, even as I’m keenly aware of the machinations of the pink-industrial complex. On one hand, I resent the implication that women are being silly when they wear pink, and on the other, I resent the notion that girlishness is itself synonymous with frivolity. I happen to have been a pretty serious little girl, even as I wore pink stirrup pants in the 1980s. Yet we tie ourselves in knots trying to outrun the misogyny that’s both within and outside us. As the symbol of Code Pink and Act Up’s iconic and highly effective Silence = Death campaign, which referenced the pink triangle that was used by Nazis to identify gay men in concentration camps during World War II, pink has done some serious heavy lifting in social justice movements. It may do us all some good to reconsider pink as an unironic color of protest, and in doing so, to help exorcise some of our impulses to denigrate the color of girlhood. Since its cousin red is the color of war, I like to think that pink could become the hue of nonviolent battle, and that learning to embrace it may be a very small first step toward ending the war on women for good.

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