Millennial pink is the colour of the moment and it’s redefining femininity

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Harriet Hall
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It’s fair to say that pink has gotten a bad rap over the past few decades. Associated with Barbie and clueless advertisers desperately trying to appeal to women, pink has long been due a revival. And that’s what’s happening now. This season, millennial pink is the hottest shade for both genders. Here Stylist’s digital features editor, Harriet Hall, charts the history of pink and defends her favourite colour.

Pink. It’s the most controversial shade on the colour wheel, inciting extreme visceral reactions from adoration to abhorrence, sparking debate and even boasting an entire think tank dedicated to obliterating it.

It also happens to be the colour of the season.

For a long time, a moratorium on the fashion set wearing pink had been issued, until Phoebe Philo defied it proudly in her SS12 Céline Resort collection. And now, pink is back in a big way. Designers embraced rosé tones all over the catwalks for 2017, from fuchsia at Balenciaga to candy at Molly Goddard and all shades at Gucci. Even Valentino – harbinger of red – had a pop at pink. And, this time, there’s a new shade in town –  a subtle hue given the moniker ‘Millennial Pink’. And the world has gone giddy for it.

Yet pink remains a divisive colour. Even the word feels problematic. So why does the world detest its reddish hue so much?

Because, of course, it’s a woman’s colour – a girl’s. The feminisation of pink, which has steadily increased since the 1940s into the zenith of saccharine, has aligned it with women and – by extension – fluffiness. 

As many colour historians have documented, pink wasn’t always the colour of sugar and spice and all things nice in the West. The colour’s first gender affiliation was with boys.

From as early as the 13th century, the Christ child was depicted swathed in rosy fabric. By the 19th century, little boys were decorated with blush ribbons. Seen then as simply smaller versions of grown men, pink was considered a lighter, diminutive incarnation of the warrior-like red worn by English soldiers.  And, of course, the blue of the Virgin Mary – created by painters using the most exotic and luxurious pigment of Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli – became the colour associated with girls and women; considered, for a long time, the ‘daintier’ shade. Even Disney princesses, the girliest of girls, are dressed in blue.

When the Edwardian sailor suit came into fashion for boys, the colour preferences for children were inverted, but the gender divides between pink and blue were never set in stone, as they seem to be today.

It was the invention of chemical dyes that really gained pink a reputation as a female colour. And in 1947, surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli introduced her own shade of pink, a hot, fierce magenta which she called ‘shocking pink’. This, as its name suggests, was a rebellious out-there shade for the confident woman. Nobody wearing shocking pink was going to be ignored.

Pink then joined the fashion lexicon on women’s clothing, and by 1953 it developed a new meaning entirely. Mamie Eisenhower’s candyfloss inaugural gown of 1953 is considered a turning point in the association of pink as feminine and ladylike, her penchant for pink seen to inspire Audrey Hepburn’s Funny Face attire in the Think Pink number.

In the 1980s, when parents could learn the gender of their unborn children, the opportunity to market to this became too lucrative to resist, and so the rules were set.

The colour’s now dual meaning of either sugary sweet innocence or seduction – shade dependent – reflects the virgin or whore dichotomy that women supposedly fit into, making it a firmly feminine colour. All the associations of pink as virile have been completely washed away.  Ask a colour expert today what the colour symbolises, and they will say: romance, sensitivity, kindness.

Since pink has been associated with women, it has been removed of any threat, imbued, instead, with these often negative connotations. Pink is now associated with the feminine stereotypes of the ‘over emotional,’ ‘over sensitive,’ the ‘passive’. Today, a woman wearing pink in the boardroom is considered girlie, nay: weak. But the negative connotations of a person in pink are simply those society has with the feminine. When it’s manly it’s powerful and virile, when it’s a female colour it’s considered weak – even dangerous.

But pink is not the problem, it’s a symptom of a world in which gender limits us and femininity is frowned upon. A world in which women are told to be feminine, then lambasted for doing so.

Enter millennial pink: the dusty, calamine hue that everyone’s going wild for. This is a pink sophisticate that defies all traditional connotations of the colour. A renegade pink. It’s a post-pink pink, a pink for the age where femininity is no longer willing to be considered a curse. And it’s the joint Pantone shade of 2017: Pale Dogwood (following last year’s Rose Quartz). This is a pink for women. It’s as if pink has finally come of age, as posited by Stylist’s fashion director, Alexandra Fullerton, who calls it “the new neutral”.

But the millennial (or Tumblr) pink is a symptom of a world in which femininity has had to dampen itself down. Because the world has been saturated by advertisers who – desperate in their need to appeal to women – took pink and ran with it until it became sickly, imposed upon us like a powdery cloud and alienating women as a result. Today, advertisers who use pink to promote products for women either have their head in the sand, or do so in a tactful way. A recent survey by advertising agency Engine found that 76% of women didn’t feel represented by advertising. Their strategy is not to shy away from the use of pink or feminine vernacular, but to have a good reason for doing it. Pink can be used but it must be necessary.

The problem society has developed with pink isn’t the colour itself, but the language and expectations that come with it. The pinkification of girlhood is damaging because it is loaded with the lexicon of subjugation. It is loaded with the idea that tech or engineering or sports aren’t female pursuits unless they’re presented in pink. That a woman can’t be interested in politics unless it drives around in a pink van.

But the answer is not to reject the colour entirely, or present only one acceptable shade, it’s to embrace it wholeheartedly. Because, as Schiaparelli knew, in the right hands pink can be a fierce weapon.

Japanese Lolitas masquerade as the hyper feminine to play on the infantilisation of women, to subvert expectations and throw aggressive girlishness into the face of ‘the man’. Jackie Kennedy’s Pepto-Bismol Chanel-style suit played to the idea of ladylike innocence. The image of the heavenly shade violently splattered with the blood of her husband presents her as both an unjustly widowed woman victim and a self-publicising warrior. She famously refused to change her clothes for the press, saying: “Let them see what they’ve done.” The sea of pink seen when five million people took to the streets worldwide for the Women’s Marches, garbed in knitted pussy hats, was not a sign of feminine weakness, but womanly strength.

And that’s how it should be seen. Because, ultimately, pink is a positive colour, one relatively free from political allegiance (excluding the non-official derogatory socialist ‘Pinko’). Studies have even shown pink to have a tranquilising effect. And pink phrases: ‘rose tinted glasses,’ ‘in the pink,’ ‘everything’s rosy’ and ‘tickled pink’, are all positively bent.

Perhaps that’s also why millennial pink is the shade du jour. The hue of wellness. When in need of an injection of positivity, society turns to escapism. As Laurie Pressman, VP of Pantone Color has said, “a colour becomes popular because it’s symbolic of the age we’re living in. These are turbulent times. People are looking for calm.” And, when womanhood is threatened by the powers that be, society places it firmly in the foreground (think the embracing of femininity post-WWII with Dior’s New Look). But this time it’s different. “There’s no princess girliness here,” says WGSN’s colour director, Jane Moninington Boddy.

Millennial pink can be found on Scandi-chic Acne Studios bags and in feminist underwear brand’s (banned) Thinx adverts. It’s sporty, it’s cool, it has an edge. And what’s more, it’s touted as the menswear shade, too, cropping up at menswear shows as the colour of the age of gender fluidity.

So let’s wear millennial pink, but let’s also wear electric pink, salmon, and champagne. Pink is the shade of the feminist revolution, radical femininity and the anti-gender construct zeitgeist. Swoop in under the beige-dissenters, subvert traditional femininity and wear it with pride. Because pink is here to stay this time.

Collage images: Rex Features, Getty

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