In western culture pink traditionally symbolizes femininity and sensuality.[2.] Traditionally it has been a color of a baby girl. Pink also has association with a gay movement. [2.] As a color of fashion pink was a popular shade that helped to popularize 18th century fashion. Back then this tone was a "favorite of the pastel-loving European bourgeoisie."[10.]
These and many other associations with the meaning of pink color in the past and now - are both deceptive and historically grounded. In this story I will try to keep track of the historical role of pink in the fashion context.
Ancient Roots of Pink
In ancient times, people did not know the pink color, but they knew the red that was as if blended with white. In the Ancient Egypt, the flamingo was the hieroglyph for the color red. [8.]However, the shade of red has been described in the texts of the ancient authors. Just like today, we know different pink tones - rosy, coral, fuchsia and even neon pink ..., the ancient people called it associatively in different words. In the Odyssey written by Homer in approximately 800 BCE the color were mentioned as "rosy-fingered dawn" [ The Odyssey, Book XII]. [ 12.]
In the Ancient Roman texts this color was mentioned as "roseus" aka "rosy" which might be a name for a "pink". [12.]
Color of Flesh
However, there are breaks in the history of pink color. During the Medieval times pink was not a common color, because nobility usually wore bright clothes. However, pink sometimes did appear in women's fashion, and in religious art. [12.]
In the Renaissance, artists began to consider using pink shades as a part of their palette."Italian painter Cennino Cennini described the shade as a blend between Venetian Red and St. John’s White, using it to provide the glowing undertones of religious figures and poised gentry alike." [10.] Pink was also a shade that was used to depict flesh tone in art. The color symbolism of the Renaissance era art refers to the pink shades as a symbol of marriage, representing a spiritual marriage between mother and child. [12.]
However, a rather interesting picture is shown by 16th century portrait painting, which, especially in southern European countries, highlights pink tones in men's clothing. Perhaps it has been a fashionable thing that apparently "diluted" the red pigment, highlighted as a masculine color, which will be of particular importance over the coming centuries.
The Origins of Name
As it turns out in ancient times ( until the 17th century) mankind did not know what name to give to a pink color. The origin of the English word "pink" has its own interesting discourse on symbolism. One of the sources for the word "pink" could be searched in the Dutch flower called "pinken". The word itself possibly been derived at around 1681. [8.]"The flower's name could have originally been "pink eye" or "small eye.""[8.]Sources say, that another possibility is the verb "to pink" - to prick or cut around the edges, as with pinking shears. The jagged petals of the flower looked as though they had been cut, thus explaining why it became known as the "pink." [1.]
The 18th century came with the unprecedented popularity of pink. Color already had its own name and history. It was in this century that the pink color gained its well-known symbolism. It was associated with both romanticism and seduction. [12.]
Color was popularized through the fashion and trends of interior design. More than that, pastel pink was favored by both the men and women of the European bourgeoisie. It appeared in gowns worn by many celebrities of the era. It was seen in the embroidered silk coats sported by the well-heeled men of Louis XVI’s court.[9.] During the "late 18th century, pink was recommended as the bedroom color of choice for the business-minded gentleman for a restorative and uplifting home base." [10.]
During the Rococo era, when pink became a favorite tone for fashionable clothing, tableware and many interior items, it was also frequently featured in the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Madame de Pompadour, the chief mistress of Louis XV, was famous for her love to pink clothes. Once she commissioned a bright pink porcelain service from Sèvres, "which developed a new color for the set called Rose Pompadour aka Pompadour Pink in 1757." [5.]
However, pink was not just the color of women's clothing and it turns out that pink was not always a color for girls. Men were dressed in pink clothes even more often than women. And not to be surprised, either as Madame de Pompadour was the one who dictated French Rococo's fashion trends. Therefore, the color was extremely fashionable among both men and women of the aristocracy.
It is important that, the story of pink in Europe binds to ideas of elegance, novelty, and aristocratic splendor. [ 9.] Pink had no link to gender because it was at that time a gender-less color.[ 9.]
During the 18th century pink was not considered as color only for girls. Children of both sexes usually were dressed in white. This was due to the fact that before the invention of chemical dyes, clothing of any color would quickly fade when washed in boiling water.[12.] So, it was set by hygiene standards.
There is also a visual evidence in Western European paintings, that little boys more frequently than girls were dressed in pink tones. Pink was often considered more appropriate for boys because it was seen as a shade of red, which had masculine and therefore, military symbolism. So it was a time when pink was for boys but light blue for girls. The explanation for this again should be sought in color psychology and its impact on the symbolism. Blue is considered a calm, passive color, hence feminine. Red is considered active hence masculine. [8.] Therefore, pink that is derived from red binds to clothing of the little boys.
In the 19th century clothing history can be found examples of this color symbolism accentuation. For example, in England pink ribbons or decorations were often worn by little boys. As already mentioned before, back then boys were simply considered small men, and while men in England wore red uniforms, boys wore pink.[12.]Queen Victoria was painted in 1850 with her seventh child and third son, Prince Arthur, who wore white and pink. [12.]
By the end of the 19th century everything started to change. Men shifted to primarily black or just somber color palette, but women continued to wear the bright colors as well as pastel shades. [9.]
The 20th Century Pink
In the 20th century, well-known bright pink tones also appeared. In fact, pink shades became bolder and brighter, partly because of the invention of chemical dyes which did not fade.  Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 - 1973) who was close to the surrealist movement created a new shade of pink, called shocking pink (1931). It was made by mixing magenta with small amount of white. [12.]
Then came a transition to pink as a sexually differentiating color for girls. It occured gradually, through the selective process of the marketplace, in the 1920' s, 1930's and 1940's, some groups had been describing pink as a masculine color, an equivalent of the red that was considered to be for men, but lighter for boys. But stores nonetheless found that people were increasingly choosing to buy pink for girls, and blue for boys, until this became an accepted norm in the 1940's. [12.]
In the 20th century, as well as in the 21st century, pink colors acquired new associative links in youth culture. During the 1960's pink was associated with fuchsia because of Pop Art movement. [10.]
The revival of a neon pink was observed in the 1990's. It was feminism determined in pink. The 21st century pink tones are cherished by the generation of millenials. "As with Rococo, today’s so-called “millennial pink” positions itself as a gender-neutral color."[10.]
But that's not all. Pink is also associated with a sense of positivism, dreaming and optimism that takes us to the imaginary world when we "look through pink glasses" or "rose-colored glasses". This is used as a figurative or idiomatic expression which means an optimistic perception of something; seeing something in a positive way, often thinking of it as better than it actually is. And maybe it's not at all bad. [16.]
References & Further Reading:
1.Heifetz J. When Blue Meant Yellow: How Colors Got Their Names. - Henry Holth & Co., 1994.
2.Signs & Symbols. An Illustrated Guide To Their Origins And Meanings. /Project Editor: Kathryn Wilkinson. - London, New York, Munich, Melbourne, Delhi: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2008.
3.Steele V. Pink. The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color. - Thames & Hudson, 2018.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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