Exploring the Many Meanings of the Color Pink Throughout History and What It Means to Modern Consumers

I was walking down the aisle (at Target) when it caught my eye—that perfect shade of pink somewhere between salmon and bubble gum. It threw me off because it came in the form of an obnoxious, fluffy, heart-shaped pillow, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

“Why do I want this?” I asked a friend as I pulled the pillow from its shelf. It made no sense, because I haven’t considered myself a “pink girl” since I wore glitter on my cheeks and plastic butterfly clips in my hair.

You’re too old for this, too sophisticated for this, too neutral for this, I kept telling myself. But I couldn’t shake the notion that there was something about that color—that pink—that was undeniably alluring to me.

Color Pink

I ended up putting the pillow back because I didn’t want to waste money on something so frivolous and short-lived. Colors are easy to get tired of, I thought. You’ll probably want something totally different tomorrow.

But that pink stuck with me the next several months as I shopped for dresses, rugs, even furniture, and soon, I started seeing it everywhere. People started calling it “millennial pink,” and it was about that time that I realized that I had stepped right into a cultural stereotype.

Here I was, a middle-class millennial woman, buying up all this millennial pink, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it happened. After all, Pantone’s color of the year in 2017 was Greenery, a lush shade I made the conscious decision to purchase at the start of the year.

Pink didn’t even become the main color for girls until the 1940s, when retailers and manufacturers began to follow consumers’ shopping habits.

So how did millennial pink sneak its way into our hearts (and our heart-shaped pillows)? And why do we love it so much, even if all of us don’t consider ourselves “pink people” or millennials?

Let’s explore the finer points of the pink trend that has taken over 2017, and discover what the latest iteration of this timeless color means to modern consumers.

Pink as a Gender Stereotype

Like most colors, pink has meant different things to people at different points in history.

Ask American consumers 10 or 15 years ago what they thought of the color, and they would probably associate it with images of extreme femininity—fluffy Clueless pens, Legally Blonde outfits, breast-cancer-awareness ribbons, or Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers.

Since the mid-1900s, pink has been the color designated to girls at birth in bows and headbands. In 1959, Barbie even branded its own shade of pink to attract young girls, and a “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” mentality swept the nation. As millennials, that’s the stereotype most of us grew up with. But it wasn’t always that way.

Pink Lemonade

Actually, children of the late 1800s and early 1900s dressed in gender-neutral clothing. A 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Magazine even said: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

In fact, pink didn’t even become the main color for girls until the 1940s, when retailers and manufacturers began to follow consumers’ shopping habits.

So pink has been long associated with gender stereotypes. But the stereotypes keep changing according to people’s preferences, and preferences vary from generation to generation.

Just as the silent generation—and those before them—preferred pink for boys, baby boomers and Gen Xers prefer pink for girls, and now millennials are redefining pink yet again. This time, it’s gender-neutral.

Pink as a Complicated Color

The term millennial pink started showing up in the summer of 2016, after Véronique Hyland of the Cut published her viral blog “Is There Some Reason Millennial Women Love This Color?” As the title suggested, pink was popular long before millennial pink became a thing, and it was popular among more than just millennial women.

The color started rising in popularity in 2012 on popular social networks like Tumblr and Pinterest, where people began sharing images of a softer version of Barbie Pink in designs, fashion, and interior décor. As gender fluidity became more acceptable in pop culture, men must have felt more inclined to like it, too, because it took the internet by storm.

Pink Donut and Coffee

The color was eventually dubbed Tumblr Pink or Scandi Pink (short for Scandinavian), and soon #palepink was the most popular pink-related hashtag on Tumblr.

Noticing the trend, Pantone named Rose Quartz—a light, peachy pink—the color of the year in 2016, along with Serenity blue, as a nod to the clash of old and new technologies in the modern world.

But beyond the rise of technology, Pantone also saw pink and blue as a combination that “challenges traditional perceptions of color association.”

And it’s this ironic, semi-ugly quality that makes millennial pink such a powerful force in marketing.

Pantone noted: “In many parts of the world we are experiencing a gender blur as it relates to fashion, which has in turn impacted color trends throughout all other areas of design. This more unilateral approach to color is coinciding with societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity, the consumer’s increased comfort with using color as a form of expression, a generation that has less concern about being typecast or judged, and an open exchange of digital information that has opened our eyes to different approaches to color usage.”

Debbie Millman, brand consultant and host of Design Matters, also saw pink as something political and right in line with the millennial generation’s interest of doing away with gender stereotypes. She called Pantone’s pink a “political appropriation” of color.

“It felt like a statement,” Millman said. “Pink has a history of being such a polarizing color, relegated to Barbies and bubble gum, and that’s changing for political reasons, as opposed to aesthetic ones. It’s a question of ownership, and I think that’s very exciting. … Pink hasn’t traditionally worked across genders, but it fits right in there with the man-bun and the man-bag, where we’re seeing this fluidity like never before.”

Along with gender fluidity, growing interest in pink might also be attributed to the popularity of a new wave of feminism and the women’s-rights movement. While women of the 1960s and 70s liberation movements saw pink and feminine fashions as things that limited their roles in society, women today tend to think of pink as an empowering color. Pink is a symbol of girl power that is unabashedly girly, telling women they don’t have to become more masculine to be taken seriously. They can still wear pink and be treated as equals.

In her blog, Hyland described America’s infatuation with pink as “a moment of ambivalent girliness.” She added, “We’re embracing our girlier impulses: our vocal fry, the ‘likes’ and ‘ums’ we were told would hold us back, our #girlboss-ness.”

Another part of millennial pink’s allure is its universal appeal. It’s not one color for one type of person. In fact, much like its many meanings, the color itself seems open to interpretation, ranging in shades anywhere from blush beige to peach salmon.

Generally speaking, Hyland called it an “ironic pink”—a “noncolor that doesn’t commit, whose semi-ugliness is proof of its sophistication.”

And it’s this ironic, semi-ugly quality that makes millennial pink such a powerful force in marketing.

Pink as Semi-ugly Sophistication

In September 2016, Pietro Quaglia, a former Dolce & Gabbana intern, opened an all-pink Italian restaurant, called Pietro Nolita, in Lower Manhattan. The tiny, underground pink paradise has become a fixture on Instagram with selfie-friendly heart-shaped mirrors and geometric black-and-white tables to contrast the rosy shades of everything else.

But what’s particularly interesting (and witty) about Pietro Nolita is the way it acknowledges its own gaudiness on its napkins, by calling itself out as “Pink as [well, let’s just say, a four-letter expletive].”

Pink Hair

Quaglia said the idea for the napkins actually came from being motivated by the fear that people might perceive an all-pink restaurant the wrong way (as over-the-top girly), when, in fact, it was meant to be seen as countercultural.

The restaurant’s designer, Jeanette Dalrot, explained that Pietro Nolita was designed to emulate the style of the Italian design and architecture firm the Memphis Group, which used pink to challenge traditional modernism: “It never felt like the typical feminine, girly, soft color with them. They made it look more interesting and bold.”

The Memphis Group used pink with a whimsical 80s flair that flew in the face of modern design’s attempts to set strict standards for beauty. It was founded in Milan in 1981 by the late Ettore Sottsass, and its style has risen to popularity on Instagram the last few years with an account under Sottsass’s name (@EttoreSottsass).

In fact, pink speaks so much to consumers that Digiday reported it has been mentioned more than 32,000 times online in 2017 alone.

Scroll through images of odd, clashing colors and childlike patterns, and you’ll notice it’s nothing like the clean minimalism of today, or of Sottsass’s time, for that matter. Actually, it’s purposefully outrageous, intended to disregard good taste and embrace a radical, funny, even brash side of design for a change.

To some, pink carries with it that same semi-ugly sophistication Hyland described that’s confident enough to be boldly wrong and rebellious yet still manages to look good.

A similar spirit is evident in a 2015 Thinx underwear ad that caused a stir with the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Thinx, a company that makes “period underwear,” created an ad that used grapefruits and eggs to represent female body parts and bodily functions. The ads were initially rejected by the subway’s advertising partner, Outfront Media, which thought the content seemed too “inappropriate” to be seen by the general public on the subway, although there was no nudity or even PG-13 language.

For Millman, use of the color pink in the ads is part of what made them particularly bold for the mainstream market. “For an ad campaign [like that of Thinx period underwear] to use a polarizing color in a mainstream way is a pretty important statement,” she said.

It speaks to gender fluidity. It speaks to women’s empowerment. It speaks to rebellion against the norms of traditional design. In fact, pink speaks so much to consumers that Digiday reported it has been mentioned more than 32,000 times online in 2017 alone. And as much as pink can be loud, bold, and obnoxious, there’s still something about it that remains soft, calming, and surprisingly sincere, too.

Pink as Rose-Colored Glasses

“I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day, and I believe in miracles.”

Hollywood darling Audrey Hepburn captured a wide-eyed, optimistic view of the color pink in her oft-quoted words that are still being printed on Etsy posters. And Hepburn’s “belief in pink” offers yet another interpretation of the color’s meaning to consumers.

It’s not the color of the year, or the color of the season; it’s the color of many seasons of life, with many meanings to many people.

It’s not rebellious so much as it is about choosing to see the world with hope through rose-colored glasses. And even though it’s childlike, it’s not childish or girly so much as it is choosing to live with a sense of wonder, serenity, and inner strength.

The Cut’s Lauren Schwartzberg described it as “cheeky, sincere, and nostalgic all at once, which is perhaps why the earnest ironist Wes Anderson bathed the entirety of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the color—filling us with a bright, wide-eyed wonder and even, for at least a moment, keeping us calm.”

In October 2016, the Wing, a members-only social club for women in New York, painted its walls a calming shade of pink based on similar logic. Chiara de Rege, who designed the Wing, said they wanted something “soft and feminine” without being too “girly girl.” And when she surveyed her team about how to convey that, they all happened to have the same color in mind.

“Everyone working on the project had these pink sofas on their Pinterest boards,” de Rege said.

Despite warnings that pink will eventually go out of style, the color remains in vogue, and it’s still selling off the shelves. It’s not the color of the year, or the color of the season; it’s the color of many seasons of life, with many meanings to many people.

Pink is a color of extremes—of old and new, ironic and iconic, bold and calm.

Schwartzberg pointed out that pink has staying power among consumers that even Pantone’s color predictions couldn’t quite account for. “Often when Pantone declares Marsala Red or Radiant Orchid to be the next color to watch, we shrug knowingly, fully expecting to see that shade on shelves but not expecting it to invade our consciousness,” she wrote. “This pink is different. Even now, just when it seemed like we had hit a peak and it was finally on the wane, there it appeared again in Fenty’s spring lookbook and on army jackets at Madewell.”

And pink’s continued popularity is a sign that consumers still have significant power in driving cultural trends. Even though Pantone picked Greenery as the color of 2017, shopkeepers like Fabiana Faria, of the boutique Coming Soon, have noticed that pink products continue to sell out faster. “We’ve upholstered things in this emerald green that we’re excited about, but it sits there for months,” Faria said. “The second I show a pink thing—anything—it leaves so quickly.”

Pink as a Versatile Beauty

Pink is a color of extremes—of old and new, ironic and iconic, bold and calm. And its versatile nature is part of what keeps consumers coming back. Actually, when I think about it, the cultural narrative for the rise of millennial pink seems somewhat similar to my initial experience with it.

At first, it comes off as too juvenile, too fun, and over the top, like something you’d see Elle Woods toting into her Harvard dorm room in Legally Blonde. You wonder if it’s you. You question whether you can pull it off. But much like Woods herself, there’s also something about pink that’s refined and serious, too, and perhaps that is the allure of it. Perhaps it reminds us of the many personalities living inside ourselves that we have the capacity to be at any given time. It reminds us we can be cute and fun and stylish and sophisticated all at once, and we don’t have to choose.

We are people with a range of emotions and ideas. We are fully human. We are equals, and yet we are all still special at the same time, and when you think about pink like that, the millennial label starts to make sense.

Pink is the color of a generation that blurs the lines of social hierarchies and gender distinctions, a generation that sees the world through the rebellious lens of hope, change, and individuality—a generation that takes something our parents stereotyped and turns it into something all inclusive.

And dare I say, it looks so pretty this way.

Photos: Shutterstock

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