A History of Pink

December 5, 2015

Soumi Barua

“Real men wear pink.” Sometimes, we come across a guy wearing a shirt adorned with this catchy phrase. While this shirt may cause some to smile and others to sneer at the wearer, let it be known that pink actually was not always the classic “feminine” color.

But wait! Haven’t we always been taught that, “Blue means boy, and pink means girl?” I remember in elementary school, all the bathrooms had either pink or blue tiled walls (for females or males, respectively) to signal to our five-year old minds which bathroom our heteronormative society would approve of us using. Today, we associate blue with boys and pink with girls, but was it always like this?

Since ancient times, pink was considered a masculine color. Pink was the brighter (and happier) version of blood-like red, which signified power, prestige, and war. For example, French nobles in the 18th century courts of Louis XVI wore pink silk coats.

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Into the 19th century, pink was still gender-neutral, and both boys and girls could be seen wearing rosy pink outfits. Here is a painting from 1840 of young boy in a pink dress:

(Dresses were also gender-neutral for young children in the 19th century, but that is a topic for another time.)

My favorite painter, Claude Monet, exhibits a woman in a soft-pink dress:

Fast forward to the 1910s and you can see clothing catalogs advertising pink as a strong color because it was the derivative of red. In the classic Roaring Twenties novel The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan finds Jay Gatsby’s display of masculinity through his “pink suits” too ostentatious for his own good. When Tom responds to a description of Gatsby as an “Oxford man,” he replies incredulously with, “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit!”

(Doesn’t  [Leonardo DiCaprio] Jay Gatsby just look great in that pink suit?)

(Doesn’t  [Leonardo DiCaprio] Jay Gatsby just look great in that pink suit?)

Tom isn’t calling Jay feminine, as our 21st century mindset would have us conclude. He is criticizing Gatsby for wearing pink because starting in the 1920s, pink became a symbol of working class, which was unsuitable to the Gatsby’s supposed classy, Oxford origins. Now, pink still symbolized power, but only because pink came from hard labor, perhaps from washing red clothes repeatedly after manual labor and slowly turning them pink. Pink’s connotations of power, and later labor, are far from today’s association with femininity, breast cancer, and romance. 

However, after World War II, technology became more advanced so that parents could learn the biological sex of their child before he or she was born. Obsession with Sigmund Freud’s theories on psychosocial child development did not help, and parents desperately wanted to set up the “correct” nursery for their child. Additionally, after the war, some research studies erroneously showed that female children innately preferred the color pink to other colors (including blue). So, clothing manufacturers of the 1950s jumped in and decided that pink clothing should be marketed towards girls, and blue should be for boys. The association was arbitrary, but parents needed this outside confirmation to confirm their child would have “proper mental development.” 

The 1950s and the 1960s advanced femininity’s association with the color pink. As more clothing stores such as Sears and Macy’s targeted pink towards female babies and women, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy solidified pink’s status as a high-fashion feminine color. The fashion icon was often seen wearing pink, and here we can see her wearing a bright pink gown to the unveiling of the Mona Lisa in the U.S. in 1962:  

The First Lady was even wearing pink the day President Kennedy was assassinated, as shown in this iconic photo of the 1960s:

Even with our current Western view that pink is a feminine color, anybody should be comfortable wearing this bright color. Take a cue from Leonardo DiCaprio, or any of the Korean pop stars, who love to wear pink and definitely don’t think it’s too effeminate:

Clearly, BIG BANG member Taeyang is rocking a pink suit just as well as Gatsby.

Below: Singer Lee Sungmin with his newly wed wife at their wedding ceremony in South Korea wearing pink hanbok (traditional Korean clothing). If a newlywed wife and husband can wear pink at their wedding ceremony, anybody can wear pink at any time! 

The progression of pink’s masculine connotation to the modern feminine connotation is a relatively recent one. Men shouldn’t feel wearing pink clothing is too effeminate, and women shouldn’t fear being “stereotypically girly” by wearing pink. People of all gender identities should be able to wear pink freely, because it is such a happy and uplifting color!