Pink is one of the most eye-catching colors in the world. It walks that fine line between colors found in nature and those which come about solely through humanity’s artistic innovation. Pink occurs in nature just often enough that it feels comforting in a similar way to blue skies and verdant plains. But pink is also rare enough to catch our attention. This appreciation of pink is hardly unique to modern times either. When we look back into history we see that the color shows up in some surprising contexts.
We can begin by going back into the depths of prehistory. Imagine a world 1.1 billion years ago removed from everything you know and love. We estimate that life on earth had only existed for 2.6 billion years at that point. And in this world where life was still a fairly recent development a plant’s coloring was being preserved in the geographic record.
Modern-day researchers have found traces of the molecular fossils of chlorophyll from those agent times. What’s more, we’ve been able to reconstruct the color of this ancient material. And it’s won bright pink the honor of being the oldest known biologically generated color.
A Different Type of Pompadour
We now need to move to a more recent part of history – 18th century Europe. You’ve probably heard the term pompadour before. It’s usually in the context of hairstyles. But we see a different type of pompadour while looking back into pink’s history. The 18th-century aristocrat Madame de Pompadour is known for many things. Her role as maîtresse-en-titre to Louis XV made her both fashionable and slightly risqué. In modern terms, she’d be considered a top-tier social influencer.
As Madame de Pompadour’s celebrity grew, so did people’s appreciation of her fashion sense. She loved the color pink and was anything but shy about that fact. Pink suddenly became a hit in the highest tiers of society’s upper crust. The court already had slightly more appreciation for pink than the average citizen. But it was Pompadour who took that appreciation to the next level. As is usually the case, this trend quickly caught the attention of people outside that circle as well. Anyone who admired the social elite was quick to notice a new way to imply they might have some part of it.
One Woman Started a Huge Change in the Perception of Color
A woman with a special affinity for pink might seem perfectly normal to the modern eye. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this was a very different time and place. The Western world didn’t associate pink with femininity during the early years of Pompadour’s influence. In fact, most people didn’t associate pink with much at all.
In the early 18th century Westerners typically saw pink as a secondary color. It had very little meaning in and of itself. Instead, people tended to just think of it as a less conventional take on the color red. Contrary to modern sentiment, this means that if people thought of pink at all it was usually in a military context. Red was seen as a somewhat aggressive color and linked to the military. As such, people tended to think of pink in a similar way.
This is also one of the reasons why we don’t see baby girls of the time wearing pink clothing or ornaments. In general babies of both genders would be decked in plain white clothing.
Use of the Color Pink in Victorian Times
By the late 18th century pink had become more widespread within the Western world. The color once embraced by high society and social climbers had made its way to what we’d now consider the upper-middle-class.
The early psychologists of the era sometimes recommended pink as a restorative. In fact, these proto-psychologists of the time would often suggest that businessmen decorate their bedrooms in pink to partake of its calming properties.
Divisions From Gender, Culture and Class
The next big cultural shift for the color won’t happen until the 20th century. The 1950s were a unique time for most of the world’s cultures. The aftermath of World War II redefined how most people saw the world around them. In many parts of the world, and in America in particular, women had seen major changes in both social and self-perception.
The war efforts had seen a huge segment of the professional world moved out into active military service. Many women had their first taste of that same professional life as they filled the men’s roles for a brief period. After the war people found the world to be a slightly different place. Men returned to their jobs and most women returned to a role in the home. However, the call of domesticity was now altered thanks to many women’s expanded view of the world.
At the same time, Americans had a steady focus on their leaders. The Roosevelt presidency had been in many ways defined by a desire to lead by example. Eleanor Roosevelt in particular had brought new attention to the role of the first lady as she changed the nature of meals at the White House. The first lady led by example as the depression forced most Americans to redefine their relationship with food. Likewise, during the war, she focused on rationing. People were in the habit of seeing the presidential residence as a source of inspiration.
Eisenhower’s presidency began in a social climate where people were as focused on White House interactions as presidential leadership. It’s little wonder that Mamie Eisenhower’s pink dress caught people’s attention. In fact, the dress’s shade of pink would become known as Mamie Pink and First Lady Pink. As time went on the public would learn two important facts about the first lady. She loved pink and was decidedly passionate about subjects typically associated with housewives. She had so much pink in the White House that some members of the press nicknamed it the pink palace.
At the same time, American women were looking at the world in a new way. It’s thought by many that having a more active role in society provided women with a more dynamic role in the home as well. Likewise, men returning from war would often have a renewed appreciation for the comfort of home. People in general were more appreciative of their home life. And on top of that women had often been able to secure an additional nest egg for their family. The post-war period had also opened up additional needs for homes, furniture and new types of home appliances.
Men and women alike were growing and expanding into new directions. Industry was booming and eager to tap into a suddenly revitalized market. We can’t really point to any one thing as the underlying reason for the era’s new association between pink and femininity. Nor can we lay claim on any singular event for the larger embracing of pink as a popular color. But this post-war period was ready and willing to latch on to new ideas. Likewise, advertising was seeing just as much growth as the companies it supported. Ideas had become just as much of a product as the physical items associated with them.
The ability to instantly tie a color into people’s sense of self is an opportunity most advertising firms would be thrilled with. As such, it’s little wonder that the larger culture would latch onto the idea of masculine and feminine colors. Likewise that it was important to buy items associated with the right color. If a second child was a different gender, then companies were happy to insinuate that everything would need to be purchased all over again. And if people could be influenced to buy a more gender defined version of something they’d already purchased for themselves, then it was a win for advertisers and manufacturers alike.
Pink in Marketing
It’s important to keep in mind that the relationship between the color pink and gender wasn’t something anyone specifically planned. To be sure, it was and continues to be a remarkably effective method of marketing. Today the “pink tax” is a known method to sell a gendered version of a product to women at inflated prices.
People often look back at the 1950s with a modern perspective and see the proliferation of pink as a force of control. But it’s important to keep in mind that people of the time simply liked pink. The proliferation of the color in what was then a fairly new line of labor-saving devices for the home was groundbreaking.
Women often associated the color pink with more than gender. Many saw it as a sign of a whole new take on domesticity. It helped to usher in an idea of housework that wouldn’t take up the entirety of the day. Today we view doing the laundry with a washing machine as a chore. But a new washing machine in the 1950s was a time-saving luxury. One memorable marketing campaign from the time boasted that a washing machine would provide housewives with a full extra day’s worth of free per week. And pink was often used as the sign of a new way to approach housework.
Marketing often tied these new labor-saving devices and the color pink together. The end result was that pink often became a very empowering color for women at the time. It was often associated with women gaining more independence and decision-making ability in the home. Pink was also embraced as a stylish color for powerful and glamorous women like Mamie Eisenhower. To be sure, some of this appreciation for pink was due to marketing. But it’s also true that much of the appreciation for the color was a natural expression of women exploring their lives in a variety of new ways.
Moving Into the Modern Era
This brings us into the most recent decades. Today’s culture has had an often difficult relationship with the color pink. As the 1950s went on pink became synonymous with girls and women. What felt like a liberation to some women in the 1950s felt more like a chain to many in the modern era. But at the same time, many women use the color as a way to fight for issues related to women’s rights or health. For example, pink ribbons are synonymous with breast cancer awareness campaigns.
The modern era has also seen some tentative attempts to use pink as a psychological tool. Remember that around 200 years ago pink had been heralded as a calming and even restorative color for people’s mental health. The end of the 20th century saw some attempts to validate that earlier idea. For example, in the 1980s some prisons touched on the idea of using pink as a way to create a more calming atmosphere for inmates. Even strictly controlled studies up until 2011 seemed to provide contradictory evidence of pink’s effectiveness as a psychological aid. Part of the problem may well be that pink has become so associated with gender that many people can’t see it as a color independent of that meaning. It’s quite possible that this will continue into the foreseeable future.
The Future of Pink
It might seem like the modern cultural associations with the color pink will endure for all eternity. But it’s important to keep in mind that the history of pink in the Western world doesn’t date back very far. The 1950s defined our current take on the subject. But seventy years or so is just a small drop in the larger ocean of time.
Associations with color come and go over time. We can look at the past and the present of the color pink. But the future of the color is only just now being written by the people who love and appreciate all of the colors present in the world. Everyone who celebrates the inherent beauty of the world will write the continuing history of pink and help to define its deeper meaning.